A very big fish story

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This could be the greatest fish story since the one about loaves and fishes — and with a lot more fish involved, at that.

But first some background.

Back in 1988 an oceanographer named John Martin proposed a radical new way of combating global warming: Fertilize selected zones of the world’s oceans with iron particles to spark massive algae blooms. The algae would draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and incorporate the carbon into its cell structure. When it died it would sink to the bottom of the sea, where the carbon would be sequestered.

Oceanographers had known for decades that there were vast stretches of the world’s oceans that were devoid of algae, despite containing sufficient quantities of nitrogen and phosphorus, the nutrients necessary for algal growth.

They also knew that algal life required trace amounts of iron in seawater for photosynthesis and growth, but the conventional wisdom held that there were sufficient amounts of it present in the dead zones.

Martin, who was one of the world’s leading authorities on trace elements in seawater, developed more sensitive tests that showed seawater in the dead zones contained only a fifth to a third of the iron needed for healthy algae growth.

One implication of Martin’s findings was that the addition of a relatively small amount of iron (a few million tons) to the right parts of the ocean might result in the production of billions of tons of algae and thus the removal of billions of tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.

In other words, fertilizing the seas with iron could be a quick, economical fix for global warming.

Needless to say, the world’s environmental establishment, which has a knee-jerk aversion to technological solutions to human problems, even existential ones, was horrified. It wasted no time in passing international moratoriums and bans to keep iron fertilization from being commercialized for atmospheric CO2 reduction.

This effectively prevented a San Francisco-based company called Plankos, Inc., founded by an entrepreneur named Russ George, from being able to create and sell carbon credits by fertilizing the sea.

However combating climate change isn’t the only reason to fertilize the oceans with iron. Phytoplankton (algae) is the life-form at the bottom of the oceanic food chain. It’s eaten by zooplankton. Zooplankton is consumed either directly or indirectly by everything else. More phytoplankton means more zooplankton, more zooplankton means more fish.

Which brings us to the mother of all fish stories.

George re-purposed ocean iron fertilization. Instead of using it to sequester carbon and combat global warming, he proposed using it for “ocean restoration,” including restoring collapsing fisheries by creating plankton ‘pastures’ for fish to feed in.

George found a partner in the Canadian First Nations Haida tribe, which had lived a salmon-centric way of life for centuries. The tribe formed the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation and funded it with $2.5 million of tribal money.

And in 2012 a Restoration Corporation sponsored ship with George aboard spread 120 tons of iron sulfate solution over 50,000 thousand square kilometers (about 20,000 square miles) in the Gulf of Alaska. The fertilization targeted the area favored by pink salmon and was timed for when the young fish were expected to swim into it.

NASA satellite images subsequently confirmed huge algae blooms in the Gulf of Alaska.

The result?

According to the Alaska Department of Fish an Game, in 2013 (the year following the fertilization) the pink salmon catch in the commercial fishery totaled 219 million fish — four-and-a-half times more than were caught the previous year and four-and-a-half times more than were expected. The total salmon catch (all species) came to 272 million fish. Both were new records.

But did the Haida iron fertilization experiment cause the record salmon runs? Critics were quick to point out that correlation is not causality.

The scientific method requires experimental evidence to be backed up by repeatability of results by the researchers and reproducibility of results by others.

The Haida experiment has been neither repeated nor reproduced because of the assorted moratoria and bans intended to kill the technology — which is a crime against humanity for which those responsible should be keel-hauled.

But there has been some supporting evidence from natural iron fertilization events, compliments of volcanic eruptions.

The 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption in the Philippines and the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland both spewed out thousands of tons of iron-rich ash that caused algal blooms over vast stretches of open water in the Pacific and the Atlantic. Both events support Martin’s iron hypothesis.

In August 2008 the eruption of Mount Kasatochi in the Aleutians ejected a large amount of iron-rich ash which rained down on the salmon habitats in the northeast Pacific, creating algae blooms at the time when the next generation of fish would be showing up. Two years later, in 2010, there was a bumper salmon run, the biggest until 2013.

Last week Mount Bogoslof, another volcano in the Aleutians, erupted. The eruption produced a 6-mile-high ash cloud, which is blowing southeast into what George calls “the ocean fish pastures of the Pacific.”

George predicts the eruption will lead to major algae blooms and big increases in the salmon runs in the next year or two. “The timing is almost perfect,” he says.

Predictability is important in science and in fish stories.

Stay tuned.

This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.