The National Academies of Sciences released a report in December 2021 assessing potential benefits of ocean-based carbon dioxide removal strategies and calling for more research to learn how these methods could help mitigate the impacts of climate change. Among the recommended strategies is ocean iron seeding or ocean pasture restoration (OPR).
The idea behind OPR has been around for decades. In 1993, John Martin, a top American oceanographer, proposed the first of a dozen experiments, adding miniscule amounts of iron to patches of the South Pacific Ocean stimulating the production of algae and ocean biomass. Martin has shown that many parts of our world’s oceans are starving for iron, lack of which suppresses ocean photosynthesis and its biological pump.
Just like agricultural pastures, “ocean pastures” need an array of nutrients for health and productivity. Algae, phytoplankton, is the basis of aquatic food webs. It’s the primary food source for zooplankton, such as copepods and krill, which in turn are the primary food for whales, fish and seabirds.
Fast forward 20 years, an entrepreneur environmentalist, Russ George, embarked on the largest ocean iron project to date 200 miles off the coast of Alaska and Canada. Supported by Canadian native, provincial and federal governments they dusted an ocean area 60×60 miles with just 100 tons of iron rich dust in the Gulf of Alaska. The goal was to restore the regional salmon fisheries. And, indeed, it did.
Within days, the ocean was teaming with life. Whales, dolphin, tuna, salmon and seabirds feasted on restored plankton blooms. Satellite imagery revealed the bloom grew to be roughly the size of the state of Virginia. The pasture captured 150-200 million tons of CO2 in the form of billions of tons of new ocean plankton — fish food. It sequestered 15 million to 20 million tons of CO2 miles down in the deep abyss. The following year Alaska’s pink salmon witnessed historic catches, four times those forecasted, delivering hundreds of millions of dollars (in USD) into the state’s economy. It cost under $5 million.
The Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation project was a resounding success. One would have expected the world to rush to embrace OPR and George as a hero. But that didn’t happen, unjustly the opposite happened. George was maligned by many in the green movement who rejected OPR.
But why? Because OPR offers a nature-based solution, removing carbon already in the atmosphere and repurposing it into new ocean life, rather than reducing carbon emissions. Many within the mainstream climate movement and radical environmentalists viewed OPR as a threat to their agenda of targeting and eliminating fossil fuels.
The National Academies of Science report confirms the legality of the work and potential in OPR. However, parts of the report may perpetuate misinformation and fallacies often advanced by OPR opponents. For example, the report implies that OPR might create unintended harmful algal blooms. It appears to wrongly state that there was no link to enhanced salmon returns in the Haida project, despite Alaska harvesting the largest salmon catch in history in 2013.
The Chesapeake Bay and Gulf of Mexico have taught us that too much algae in the wrong ocean location can be harmful, but OPR is only possible hundreds of miles offshore in the deepest regions of the ocean where iron is extremely limited, and no record of hazardous algal blooms exist.
Experts estimate climate change could cost the US $2 trillion per year over the next 50 years due to fires, flood and drought.
OPR presents the opportunity of our lifetime to address climate change without bankrupting the US economy and will give the US time to transition to new cleaner sources of fuel in a more sensitive timeframe and in a cost-effective manner.
OPR may also provide solutions to endangered species, such as Right Whales. New federal rules to reduce whale entanglements endanger Maine’s $1.4 billion lobster industry. Growing evidence suggests that ship-whale collisions may be the biggest threat to the whales’ survival rather than lobster trap entanglement. Right Whales, like most marine mammals, migrate to ocean pastures with plentiful food. George’s proposed OPR projects in New England would attract whales away from major shipping channels and lobster grounds, thereby protecting whales and commercial fishing, while quickly bringing back Atlantic Salmon to historic abundance.
Congress would be wise to consider legislation to support OPR. More fish in our ocean pastures and less carbon in the atmosphere would be a win-win for the environment and an increasingly hungry world.
Brent Fewell is the former deputy assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Water and founder of Earth & Water Law.
Alex Carlin is a foreign correspondent for environment, specializing in climate, for the Center for Media and Democracy. He has blogged from every United Nation Climate Conference since 2014.