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Dump Dirt in Oceans to 'Fertilise' Them

Julio Godoy

BONN, Germany - When some multinational companies dump chemicals into the sea, they call it 'ocean fertilisation'. This practice is near the top of the agenda at the UN conference on biological diversity in Bonn.0531 05 1

"'Ocean fertilisation' simply means dumping into the ocean particles of iron, nitrogen or urea allegedly to transform the ecological balance of particular marine habitats, to encourage additional phytoplankton growth, and increase absorption of carbon dioxide (CO2)," Saskia Richartz, ocean expert at Greenpeace told IPS.Practically all developing countries want the UN conference to approve a global moratorium on 'ocean fertilisation' until scientific evidence can prove that the practice does not bring new pollution risks. But some industrialised countries, led by Australia, want to avoid a strong ban.

Phytoplankton collectively account for half of the CO2 absorbed annually from the earth's atmosphere by plants. Through photosynthesis, plankton capture carbon and sunlight for growth, releasing oxygen into the atmosphere.

The supposedly scientific hypothesis behind ocean fertilisation is that dumping "nutrients" such as iron, nitrogen and urea into seawater would lead to growth of new phytoplankton that would absorb more CO2, thus reducing the main cause of global warming and climate change.

"The problem is, there is no sound scientific evidence that this would actually happen," Richartz told IPS. "On the contrary, ocean fertilisation could have negative side effects that would lead to further loss of marine biodiversity."

Since 1978, 12 international projects have tried to prove the hypothesis of 'ocean nourishment' with no success, Silvia Ribeiro, environmental researcher with the Canada-based Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) told IPS.

According to ETC research, most of the additional CO2 absorbed by phytoplankton appears to be re-released back into the environment when the plankton die, or are eaten by marine creatures.

Other risks include reduction of oxygen levels beneath the sea surface caused by the degradation of plankton, resulting in excess production of methane, another strong greenhouse gas responsible for global warming and climate change.

'Ocean fertilisation' could also modify marine ecosystems in uncontrollable ways by inducing changes in the food chain in localised marine biological habitats.

"One consequence of iron-induced blooms could be the consumption and depletion of other vital nutrients, that would reduce plankton productivity and carbon absorption in other areas of the seas, with unknown effects in other ecosystems," Ribeiro said.

Yet another risk is the artificial growth of harmful algae, which produce toxins associated with the poisoning of fish and other sea life.


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Richartz told IPS that the debate at the UN conference has been controversial. "Brazilian delegates have been cooperating with Australia in order to avoid a moratorium on 'ocean fertilisation'," Richartz said.

On May 26, the Brazilian delegation "presented an extreme unacceptable proposal on the moratorium, with the only ostensible objective of making the Australian position appear moderate," Richartz told IPS.

But within hours, Brazil withdrew the proposal. "The debates within the Brazilian delegation were very loud," Richartz said. This was confirmed to IPS by Brazilian non-governmental organisation representatives.

Ribeiro told IPS that "what Australia wants on 'ocean fertilisation' is obvious. It wants that the UN convention on biological diversity does not touch the subject, and transfer it instead to the London convention" on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter.

One reason for Australia to want that is that the UN convention would approve a global binding set of rules ratified by 191 countries, while the London convention has 88 parties.

In addition, the London convention is being updated through the London Protocol, which will eventually replace the former. Under the new protocol, all dumping is prohibited except for acceptable waste on the "reserve list". But this protocol has been ratified by still fewer countries, 34.

The leading global company in the business is the Australia-based Ocean Nourishment Corporation (ONC). The Australian government's support for the company and for 'ocean fertilisation' has won it the Greenpeace nomination for the Golden Chain Saw Award for the worst polluters.

ONC is currently planning to dump hundreds of tonnes of industrially produced urea, most likely into the Sulu Sea between the Philippines and Borneo. The dumping of urea could imperil the local marine environment -- the main source of livelihood for the poor fisher population in the Philippines.

Besides ONC, a handful of private companies, all registered in the U.S., are planning to launch 'ocean fertilisation' projects in unregulated high seas after specific projects in the Philippines, Ecuador, Oman, and Morocco provoked a storm of complaints from civil society groups.

Environmentalists say the UN conference should approve a global moratorium, and also ban the granting of carbon credits for ocean carbon sequestration, tradable at the carbon exchange mechanisms created by the Kyoto protocol on climate change.

Copyright © 2008 IPS-Inter Press Service

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