Politics & Policy

The Greens’ Attack on Mariculture

They fear human involvement with nature.

Over the past several months, while most of the political world has been focused on the election and the ensuing struggle over the fiscal cliff, a little story appeared that is worthy of much more attention.

It concerns the efforts of the British Columbia–based Haida native-American tribe to restore the salmon fishery that has provided much of their livelihood for centuries. Acting collectively, the Haida voted to form the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, financed it with $2.5 million of their own savings, and used it to support the efforts of American scientist-entrepreneur Russ George to demonstrate the feasibility of open-sea mariculture through the distribution of 120 tons of iron sulfate into the northeast Pacific to stimulate a phytoplankton bloom.

While massive amounts of data collected from this extraordinary experiment have yet to be analyzed and published, the first indications are that it may have been successful. NASA satellite images taken from orbit show a powerful growth of phytoplankton in the waters that received the Haida’s iron. It is hoped that these will serve as a food source for zooplankton, which in turn will provide nourishment for multitudes of young salmon, thereby restoring the depleted fishery and providing abundant food for larger fish and sea mammals as well. Furthermore, those diatoms not eaten will sink to the bottom, sequestering large amounts of carbon dioxide in their calcium-carbonate shells.

Native Americans, bringing back the salmon, preserving their way of life, while combating global warming: One would think the environmentalists would be very pleased. One would be very wrong. Far from receiving applause for their initiative, the Haida and Mr. George have become the target of rage drawn from every corner of the community of those seeking to use global warming as a pretext for curtailing human freedom.

“It appears to be a blatant violation of two international resolutions,” Kristina Gjerde, a senior high-seas adviser for the International Union for Conservation of Nature told the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper. “Even the placement of iron particles into the ocean, whether for carbon sequestration or fish replenishment, should not take place, unless it is assessed and found to be legitimate scientific research without commercial motivation. This does not appear to even have had the guise of legitimate scientific research.”

Silvia Ribeiro, of the international anti-technology watchdog ETC group, also voiced her horror at any development that might allow humanity to escape from the need for carbon rationing. “It is now more urgent than ever that governments unequivocally ban such open-air geoengineering experiments. They are a dangerous distraction providing governments and industry with an excuse to avoid reducing fossil-fuel emissions.”

Writing in the New York Times, Naomi Klein, the author of an upcoming book on “how the climate crisis can spur economic and political transformation,” made clear the antihuman bias underlying the Haida’s critics. Klein reports that while recently vacationing on the British Columbia coast, in a place she had visited for the past 20 years, she was thrilled by the unprecedented sighting of a group of orcas. At first, “it felt like a miracle.” But then she was struck by a disturbing thought:

If Mr. George’s account of the mission is to believed, his actions created an algae bloom in an area half of the size of Massachusetts that attracted a huge array of aquatic life, including whales that could be “counted by the score.” . . . I began to wonder: Could it be that the orcas I saw were on the way to the all-you-can-eat seafood buffet that had descended on Mr. George’s bloom? The possibility . . . provides a glimpse into the disturbing repercussions of geoengineering: Once we start deliberately interfering with the earth’s climate systems — whether by dimming the sun or fertilizing the seas — all natural events can begin to take on an unnatural tinge. . . . A presence that felt like a miraculous gift suddenly feels sinister, as if all of nature were being manipulated behind the scenes.

This is a remarkable passage. Previously, environmentalists objected to human actions that harmed whales. But now, human actions that help whales also evoke horror. So clearly, it’s not about whales at all. It’s about prohibiting human activity, which is seen as intrinsically evil and therefore in need of constraint, regardless of its nature.

As part of their attack upon the Haida mariculture experiment, the global-warming activists have been quick to dismiss its scientific value. Actual fishery scientists, however, have viewed it with considerable interest. “While I agree that the procedure was scientifically hasty and controversial, the purpose of enhancing salmon returns by increasing plankton production has considerable justification,” Timothy Parsons, professor emeritus of fisheries science at the University of British Columbia, told the Vancouver Sun. According to Parsons, the waters of the Gulf of Alaska are so nutrient-poor that they are a “virtual desert dominated by jelly fish.” But iron-rich volcanic dust stimulates growth of diatoms, a form of algae that he describes as “the clover of the sea.” As a result, volcanic eruptions over the Gulf of Alaska in 1958 and 2008 “both resulted in enormous sockeye-salmon returns.”

As to the canard, advanced by Klein and others demanding U.N. prohibitions, that open-sea mariculture could lead to “dead zones,” George answered it forcefully in an interview with Scientific American, saying: “Not in any pelagic [open-ocean] environment, [only] in constrained coastal regions. Is there a single solitary published report based on experimental observations other than the hypothetical? We’ve looked. We’ve not found it.”

The Haida explain their position as follows:

In 2010 something wonderful happened that focused our attention on the collapse of the salmon pastures and the salmon. The runs of sockeye salmon that were expected to return to the Fraser River in 2010 were forecast to be the lowest numbers in all of history. Out of the blue, instead of the dwindling 1 million sockeye expected the world watched in amazement as 40 million of the fish returned, the largest sockeye return in all of the historical record. . . .

What we know now [to be] the reason for the historic 2010 sockeye run is that during the summer of 2008 as the young salmon swam to their ocean pastures a volcano erupted in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. For a few days the volcano erupted throwing a vast cloud of volcanic dust into the air. Airline flights were re-routed and cancelled due to this thick cloud of mineral dust. As the dust drifted in the wind and settled onto the Northeast Pacific the life-giving mineral micro-nutrients it carried [were] . . . nourishing and restoring the ocean pasture as vast blooms of plankton turned the ocean from blue to green. The young salmon of 2008 arriving on these rich pastures were nourished, survived in great numbers, and gained strength and endurance to continue the all-important ocean cycle of their life. If there were question that the fortuitous volcanic dust was responsible for the apparent cause-and-effect benefit to the sockeye salmon one only needs to look to the second-largest sockeye-salmon return in history. That second-largest run of sockeye was the 1958 return which followed two years on the heel of another rare Aleutian volcanic eruption. We know now that for the sockeye salmon who graze our ocean pastures the proverb ‘all we are is dust in the wind’ could not be more true.

As the people of Old Massett who have long sought to live in harmony with land and sea a simple truth has become apparent. We must rekindle our stewardship of our ocean pastures; it is a cultural, spiritual, and practical imperative. The Haida people and culture would never have flourished as it has for millennia without the relationship we have with the salmon and the sea. Modern science is helping show us the path we must take.

There is a real irony here. The Haida are defending the human right to act as stewards of nature, while the warmists, who claim to be the elite of the most sophisticated society the world has ever seen, call for submission to the limits of the primitive earth. The Haida support scientific research to advance the human condition, while the allegedly cultured warmists superstitiously insist that such knowledge is to be shunned, and its practitioners suppressed. One must ask: Which side represents civilization?

History provides the answer. Starting as a few bands of hunter-gatherers, humanity expanded the food resources afforded by the land a thousandfold through the development of agriculture. In recent decades, the bounty from the sea has also been increased through rapid expansion of aquaculture, which now supplies about half of our fish. Without these advances, our modern global civilization of 7 billion people would not be possible.

But aquaculture makes use only of enclosed waters, and commercial fisheries remain limited to the coasts, upwelling areas, and other small portions of the ocean that have sufficient nutrients to be naturally productive. Most of the ocean, and thus the earth, remains a desert. The development of open-sea mariculture could change this radically, creating vast new food resources for both humanity and wildlife. Furthermore, just as increased atmospheric carbon-dioxide levels have accelerated the rate of plant growth on land (by 14 percent since 1958, according to NASA satellite data), so increased levels of carbon dioxide in the ocean could lead to a massive expansion of flourishing sea life, provided that humans make the missing critical trace elements needed for life available across the vast expanse of the oceans.

The point deserves emphasis. The advent of higher carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere has been a great boon for the terrestrial biosphere, accelerating the rate of growth of both wild and domestic plants and thereby expanding the food base supporting humans and land animals of every type. Ignoring this, the carbophobes point to the ocean instead, saying that increased levels of carbon dioxide not exploited by biology could lead to acidification. By making the currently barren oceans fertile, however, mariculture would transform this putative problem into an extraordinary opportunity.

Which is precisely why those demanding restraints on carbon emissions hate mariculture. They hate it for the same reason that those demanding constraints in the name of allegedly limited energy resources hate nuclear power: They hate it because it destroys a problem they need to have.

The ultimate question comes down to this: Are humans creators or destroyers? If it is accepted that we are simply agents of destruction, consuming or ruining resources that existed before we came, then it follows that human activities, numbers, and liberties must be severely constrained and that someone must be empowered to do the constraining. On the other hand, if it is understood that humanity is fundamentally a creative force, that we invent resources and improve the world — unleashing abundance, lighting the night, ridding continents of pestilence, and bringing barren oceans to life — then it becomes clear that the essential mission of government is not to limit liberty but to defend it at all costs.

By advancing the case for humanity, the Haida have rendered us all a very important service.

— Robert Zubrin is president of Pioneer Astronautics, a senior fellow with the Center for Security Policy, and the author of Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil. His newest book, Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism, has just been published by Encounter Books.


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