The very strange true story of an innovative idea run amok
The fishing boat chugged out of a Victoria port and headed northwest for a barren patch of the Pacific Ocean. The dozen crew members aboard the Ocean Pearl that day had kept quiet about their plans. Everyone else could know when the time was right. That’s what Russ George was hoping for, anyway. For him, this journey would be vindication for years of criticism and rejection, and it had to be done right.
First he had to contend with nasty weather. Rain and rollicking waves pounded the Ocean Pearl for days. George, who sported a scraggly white beard and wore the paunch of post–middle age around his midsection, spent most of his time in bed fighting off seasickness until the weather cleared and the boat reached its destination. Refreshed, he pulled a bright orange tuque over his head like Jacques Cousteau and directed his shipmates as they executed their strange task. For six days, the crew split open thousands of bags of iron oxide and iron sulphate, normally used in the manufacture of everything from electronics to cosmetics, mixed the powdery substances with water, and pumped the slurry into the Pacific. The Ocean Pearl left a muddy red streak behind it. They headed ashore for a small crew change at one point and returned to sea to offload more iron. About 120 tonnes ended up in the Pacific. George was overjoyed later to look out at the ocean and see a sprawling bloom of plankton. The swirling green mass spread across 10,000 square kilometres, almost twice the size of Prince Edward Island. The water was teeming with life. “It is as if we are perched in a tree on the great plains of Africa privileged to witness the great herds of beasts as they run past,” he wrote later.
The bloom was not a surprise, since iron is a nutrient that sparks the growth of plankton. What happened next was uncertain. George, the chief scientist for the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation (HSRC), hoped other organisms would feed on the plankton and spawn more sea life, particularly salmon. That was also the hope of the owners of the HSRC in Old Massett, a native reserve on Haida Gwaii, an archipelago of around 4,400 people off the coast of northwestern British Columbia. The reserve sits on the northern edge of the islands, about 100 kilometres from Skidegate, the other native reserve in the area. Salmon populations off the coast of B.C. had been plummeting for years and some in Old Massett feared stocks would never recover. George said he could bring them back. There was another goal, too. Plankton absorbs carbon dioxide; George wanted to sell carbon credits. The village was promised millions of dollars, a boon to a place where unemployment tops 60% and the average income is $16,404.
Within months, the project was derided as “rogue science” by Canada’s environment minister, and George was branded the “world’s first eco-vigilante.” Scientists from around the world condemned it, and the project became known as a cash grab and a geoengineering ploy, a term that refers to large-scale attempts to control the climate. It sparked fears that if nothing was done, someone else could try something more outlandish. Authorities later raided the HSRC’s office in Vancouver as part of an investigation into potential charges.
Back in Old Massett, residents were left bewildered and angry. Some wondered why the project was attracting criticism. Others wished George had never set foot on the island. After all, the reserve had invested $2.5 million to back his plan, equivalent to nearly a third of the federal transfer payments it receives. The community embraced a radical and potentially promising idea. But it did it while in the thrall of a man who refuses to let anything—be it regulation, proper procedure or even a dissenting opinion—stand in the way of his lofty ambition.
Last year, I visited Old Massett. The reserve’s isolation on the northern tip of Haida Gwaii was apparent before I arrived. On my flight from Vancouver on a small turboprop, the man next to me carried a bag of Subway sandwiches and a box of Timbits—not to eat along the way, but to take back home.
There are two communities in the area of Old Massett: the reserve, where 700 people live, and a nearby small town just called Masset, which has long attracted refugees from the mainland. The reserve is sandwiched between alder and cedar trees on one side, and an inlet on the other. Fat black ravens and the occasional eagle circle overhead, birds that represent the two main Haida clans. Their likenesses are carved into the totem poles around the village. Nature is integral to life on the reserve. “We live off this land,” Todd White told me. Hunting, fishing and picking mushrooms are the norm. “You go shopping at the store, you spend $500. But here you can go two ticks down to the shore and get yourself some butter clams.” Some depend on selling those clams to two processing plants in the area to help earn a living. Stable employment is scarce. Forestry once provided steady work, but the sector is in terminal decline. The toll on Old Massett is obvious. While some houses on the reserve are well-maintained, others seem to be falling in on themselves, the yards strewn with scrap wood and rusting automobiles.
Perhaps the biggest blow has come from the fishing industry. Residents recall the harbour bursting with vessels in the 1990s, but strict quotas and higher costs allowed consolidation by larger companies like the Jim Pattison Group, pushing locals out. Worse, there are fears the salmon in local rivers, a once-reliable food source, are disappearing. “I remember you could walk across that river on fish,” said Sid Davidson, an addiction counsellor who’s lived in Old Massett all his life. “There’s no fish like that anymore.”
It was a need to address both problems that led the reserve to partner with Russ George. Neither Old Massett’s chief councillor nor its economic development manager, who serve on the board of the HSRC, would speak with me. Neither would George—not at any length, anyway. He resided in Vancouver, and seemed to have gone unnoticed when in Haida Gwaii. Nobody I spoke to in Old Massett had even seen the guy, though there were whispers about an unfamiliar white-haired man spotted in town before I arrived. Gloria Tauber and her son Clint were happy to talk, however. A Haida born in Old Massett, Tauber was a locus for town gossip. When we met at her home, a police scanner squawked from a room near the kitchen.
Tauber recalled the project was first presented by the reserve’s economic development manager, John Disney (also a long-time resident), at a public meeting in March 2011. Disney, a thin man originally from the U.K., began by saying Old Massett was too reliant on an uncaring federal government. They could instead create their own wealth and help the environment at the same time. Using PowerPoint, Disney explained that global warming was reducing plankton in the ocean and, as a consequence, depriving salmon of sustenance. Seeding the water with iron could change all of that. He said more than a dozen experiments with iron fertilization, as the process is called, had been conducted. Specifically, he pointed to a volcanic eruption in Alaska in 2008 that spread iron-rich ash across the North Pacific. Two years later, tens of millions of sockeye salmon returned to the Fraser River in B.C. to spawn, leaving scientists gobsmacked.
They could see similar results if they spread iron off the coast, Disney explained. Since the plankton absorbs carbon dioxide, the project could get certified by a carbon credit standards organization, and the reserve could sell the credits to corporations seeking to offset emissions. The profits would be used to invest in the village, repair leaky roofs and build new houses. Disney showed a flow chart indicating they could make $13.5 million in revenue after the first year and $35 million the second. A company would be set up to administer the project, and the reserve would own just over 50%. Another firm called Planktos Science owned the rest. Disney said Planktos was operated by George, whom he described as having a PhD in physics. When someone asked why George held such a large percentage if he wasn’t putting in any cash, Disney said it was because George had expertise and proprietary technology. “This was our only hope for salvation. That’s what he kept stressing,” Tauber recalled.
She left uneasy, and recruited her husband and Clint to research all of this online. (She doesn’t know how to use a computer herself.) They learned that George once ran a failed company called Planktos Corp. that tried to make money through iron fertilization. The concept was widely regarded as a geoengineering technique and the United Nations discouraged it for financial gain. Even scientific experiments were to be conducted with caution.
A few days later, Disney held another meeting, and Tauber came armed with printouts. Disney defended the project and emphasized the amount of iron they would dump was tiny compared to what’s deposited into the oceans naturally every year. Those who criticized George in the past were dismissed as cranks. His message resonated with some, like Rodney Brown. Brown grew up in Old Massett, and after spending a few years in Vancouver, returned to work as a cook at an outreach building on the reserve. “If we didn’t try to do something to get our fish back, we would have regretted it,” he told me. Davidson, the addiction counsellor, felt the same way. But he wondered why George never showed up. “The village is putting up a big chunk of money, and he’s not giving us the time to answer our questions,” he said. Still, he supported the project because it carried the promise of better days. “People just hoped to get something out of it.”
Trust in Disney played a role, too. He arrived in Haida Gwaii nearly 50 years ago to work on a logging contract and never left. He married a local and worked primarily as a fisherman before becoming the economic development manager. “He wouldn’t have done it if he didn’t think it was going to work,” Davidson said.
After a third meeting, the residents voted on whether to spend $2.5 million on “salmon restoration.” The ballot made no mention of iron fertilization. “Anybody who didn’t go to those meetings would assume it was for salmon restoration, and I thought that was very deceptive,” said April White, a Haida artist. “The way to any Haida’s heart is through salmon.” Out of the 200 people who voted, 66% were in favour. Disney wrote an e-mail the next day to a couple of people with whom he was co-ordinating financing: “For [an] Indigenous community in Canada today to put their faith and support AND FUTURE in this cutting edge project based on their faith in me and council...is almost unheard of.”
Disney, in turn, put his faith in George.
My first conversation with Russ George didn’t go well. He answered his phone from Vancouver but wouldn’t agree to an interview unless he could read the final draft of the article. He wanted Ken Rea, Old Massett’s chief councillor, to have veto power over whether it was published. George was deeply distrustful of the media and said reporters were waging a “black propaganda” campaign against him with environmentalists. He presented himself as a kind of gatekeeper to Old Massett. “I speak for the salmon and the village,” he said.
George came to Canada in the 1970s from the United States. He toiled as a tree planter, volunteered for Greenpeace, and has said he worked as an environmental manager with the government. A biography in a Planktos regulatory filing states his “experience includes a classical education in ecology” and calls him “a recognized expert in advanced nuclear physics” while offering no evidence.
When it came to physics, his interest was cold fusion. Physicists remain unconvinced, even hostile, toward cold fusion, but the field has attracted no shortage of dreamers. At the same time, George pursued iron fertilization. It was first proposed in the 1980s by an influential oceanographer named John Martin to mitigate global warming. He’s reputed to have quipped, “Give me a half-tanker of iron, and I will give you an ice age.”
George eventually decided the concept was ready to be deployed in a big way. He founded the Planktos Foundation and solicited donations online, portraying himself as a crusader against global warming. Meanwhile, he tried to pull together funding and equipment. In 2002, he was living part-time on a sailboat in San Francisco when he learned that Neil Young had anchored his yacht, the Ragland, nearby. George tracked him down, pitched the musician on the merits of iron fertilization and asked to borrow the Ragland to conduct an experiment. Young ultimately agreed. (Young’s manager confirmed the anecdote to Canadian Business.)
That June, George and a few others piloted the Ragland toward Hawaii and poured two barrels of iron oxide, a paint pigment, overboard. Nature, the scientific journal, later ran an article about iron fertilization and included a picture of George at the wheel of the Ragland, his Hawaiian shirt billowing in the wind. He was starting to develop a profile, and the emerging market for carbon credits meant there was an opportunity to make money. In 2005, he partnered with Nelson Skalbania, the past owner of the Edmonton Oilers and the Montreal Alouettes who was once convicted of misappropriating $100,000 from an investor’s account. He paid it back, but was sentenced to wear a monitoring bracelet around his ankle for a year.
A Vancouver-based company controlled by Skalbania, Solar Energy Inc., bought Planktos and George’s cold fusion outfit, called D2Fusion. Neither company had revenue, but Solar valued them together at $3.5 million. (George was paid with 3.5 million shares.) He worked hard to connect with scientists, and reached out to Victor Smetacek, a marine biologist with the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany. Smetacek had carried out two iron experiments over the past decade (the results from the most recent were published in Nature in 2012). They met for lunch, and Smetacek found George to be quite knowledgeable. But he was shocked when a colleague later told him George’s company listed him in a regulatory filing as a member of its scientific advisory board. “I immediately wrote to Russ George to take me off,” he says. Smetacek was repulsed by turning a nascent scientific endeavour into a commercial enterprise. George has sent him e-mails since, but Smetacek never replies.
To handle the business side of the company, George attempted to woo Dan Whaley, a wealthy Internet entrepreneur who founded one of the first online travel reservations companies. (Whaley’s mother is also an ocean scientist who worked with John Martin.) Whaley was intrigued, but had doubts about the corporate structure—thinly traded Vancouver-based companies were somewhat notorious for pump-and-dump schemes. The incident with Smetacek and another marine scientist who had the same experience clinched it. “It was seeing Russ act with a complete and utter disregard for how to work with credible individuals that led me to the realization that he is not going to pull it off,” Whaley says. He founded his own iron fertilization company instead.
Planktos and D2Fusion shared an office in Foster City, Cali., with a small lab space in the back. A rancid smell wafted from the lab, and a door was usually propped open to help alleviate it (its origin is unclear). The company attracted a few eccentrics, such as a ponytailed man with a grey beard who appeared at night to tinker in the lab. (He headed a 9/11 “truth” organization on the side.) George, who usually ambled into work wearing a Hawaiian shirt, struggled to recruit talent and financing. “He would bring up Neil Young often, and that Neil was possibly going to invest,” says a former employee who longer wants to be associated with Planktos. “But then there was never any financing from Neil Young.”
In 2007, another Skalbania-backed company purchased the iron fertilization business from Solar, renamed itself Planktos Corp., and bought a ship called the Weatherbird II. Planktos proposed six iron deposits, including one near the Galapagos Islands. George also launched a subsidiary called KlimaFa to restore forests in Hungary. In a bold marketing ploy, he donated carbon credits from its supposed forestry work to the Vatican. He even travelled to the Vatican and presented Cardinal Paul Poupard with a framed certificate that presumably represented the offsets. Poupard murmured his way through a statement in Italian while George stood next to him and beamed.
There is no evidence Planktos planted a single tree. When the Christian Science Monitor followed up in 2010, a spokesperson for the Vatican said it was exploring legal options. The company nevertheless drummed up a lot of media attention, including a favourable piece in the New York Times. Planktos soared to a valuation of $112 million.
George was an emphatic messenger for his cause. He would proselytize in front of anyone who listened, even hitting up cab drivers for money. John Giles, an engineer who decamped from the U.K. to help Planktos in 2007, recalls hanging out on the Weatherbird one day when a large yacht docked next to it. George talked his way on-board and came back with a cheque for nearly $2,000. He’d convinced the owner to offset the yacht’s CO2 emissions. “That’s how persuasive the guy is,” Giles says. Joel Dumaresq, a partner at a private equity firm in Vancouver, met George through a mutual contact and eventually joined the Planktos board. He was skeptical before he signed on and met with George in San Francisco. “I came away thinking, We can do this,” he says. “I can’t imagine anybody else who could have got me thinking this was viable.”
In 2007, George appeared before a U.S. congressional committee preparing a report on carbon offsets. He promoted his companies and railed against his critics. At the time, scientists like John Cullen at Dalhousie University had been arguing that not enough was known about iron fertilization for it to be conducted by corporations. It was unknown how much iron could be deposited before consequences emerged, such as deoxygenated dead zones. Beyond a certain threshold, iron fertilization could actually harm marine life and, ironically, contribute to global warming. The Environmental Protection Agency warned Planktos that it needed a permit, and the government of Ecuador tried to prevent Planktos from coming near the Galapagos.
Planktos scrapped those plans and accepted an invitation from a university on the Canary Islands to conduct “joint research activities.” The Weatherbird set sail from the U.S. in November. The Spanish government refused to let it dock, forcing it to detour to Portugal. By that time, Planktos was bleeding cash. The company had spent more than $2.7 million, and Skalbania grew impatient. “I just stopped funding it,” he recalls. “I thought that was enough of a shot.” The crew was sent home, the Weatherbird sold and Planktos shuttered. The one lasting consequence of George’s Planktos adventure was that it prompted the United Nations to pass a moratorium on iron fertilization for commercial purposes, and introduce guidelines for how countries should proceed with scientific experiments.
Skalbania and George parted amicably. “He certainly wasn’t in it for the money,” Skalbania says. George didn’t appear to take a salary for the first two years, though he was paid $180,000 in 2007. He lived modestly, for the most part on a boat, and drove a beat-up sedan. Dumaresq did a double-take when George once picked him up at the airport in a rustbucket, the back seat piled high with junk.
Dumaresq, like Skalbania, doubts George was trying to get rich. “He wants to prove his naysayers wrong,” he says. “That’s the number one thing that gets him out of bed each morning.”
Old Massett proved to be the perfect setting to try again. It was isolated, and George already had a believer in John Disney. They met around a decade ago and partnered on a reforestation project, though funding fell through. Disney was intrigued by iron fertilization, and when Planktos collapsed, they got to work.
Disney applied with the Gwaii Trust Society, which administers funds for the two reserves on Haida Gwaii, and it approved $1.6 million for the project in 2011. Council used it to secure a loan with the credit union in Masset. The loan manager raised serious concerns. “We did not find independent confirmation that Planktos Science is a high-level science-based organization ‘recognized as a world leader’ or that it has ‘proprietary technology,’” he wrote in a letter to council. “Mr. Disney states that he has ‘run this by some of the top people in the world.’ It would be beneficial if the business case could have names attached to this comment.”
The loan manager was unconvinced the carbon credit broker cited in the application, identified only as Schoppmann.org, had the necessary expertise. Schoppmann, it turns out, is primarily a European importing and exporting firm run by a man named Alexander Schoppmann. He gained some notoriety a few years ago when he tried launching an airline for smokers. His reasons for working with George were bizarre, to say the least. “I had a plan to destroy the carbon market,” he told me. Schoppmann is convinced global warming is a hoax. He wanted to create huge numbers of carbon credits through iron fertilization and flood climate exchanges, rendering the market worthless. But the carbon market eventually tanked on its own. “There was no need for me to intervene,” he said.
Despite the credit union’s concerns, it approved the loan. Old Massett’s band council later decided to take ownership of the entire project. It used money from its own reserves to pay back what the HSRC had already borrowed and provided the rest of the funding, investing $2.5 million altogether. With the funding in place, the group was ready to actually carry out the iron dump aboard the Ocean Pearl by the summer of 2012. Word that the project was completed didn’t spread much further than Old Massett until October of that year, when the Guardian newspaper in the U.K. reported that it had taken place. The reserve found itself under fire. Peter Kent, then environment minister, stood up in Parliament and declared the project an “apparent violation” of Canadian law and promised a thorough investigation. Environmental outfits like the ETC Group decried the project as geoengineering and said it violated international conventions. Purported partners listed on the HSRC’s website distanced themselves, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. said it was “misled” because the HSRC didn’t inform it about plans to dump iron. The Council of the Haida Nation, an influential but separate political body on Haida Gwaii, said it was not involved. Tensions flared with Skidegate, the other native reserve on the island. Some residents sent a letter to council requesting it halt the project in part because it “shed a negative light on us all as Haida people.”
Disney and chief councillor Ken Rea held a press conference in Vancouver, where the company has an office, to defuse the situation. Disney’s voice shook when he talked about George. “Russ George did not—I say, did not—come to us to dupe us,” he said. Disney maintained the work was scientifically sound. The concept stems from that volcanic eruption in Alaska in 2008, which spread iron across the Pacific. When salmon born that year returned to the Fraser River two years later to spawn, 34 million showed up. Just 1.7 million returned the year before, a number so low it sparked a federal inquiry. Timothy Parsons, a retired scientist with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, was the first to hypothesize that the eruption—which caused a plankton bloom, providing more food—led to the gigantic salmon return. He published his theory in the journal Fisheries Oceanography. (The event inspired George to write a song called “40 Million Salmon Can’t Be Wrong.” He arranged for a couple of musicians to perform the tune at an elementary school in Masset in 2012.)
While George indulged his creative impulses, some scientists tried dismantling Parsons’ volcano theory. Skip McKinnell, deputy executive director of the North Pacific Marine Science Organization, published a paper last year pointing out that while the volcano did trigger a plankton bloom, no other species of fish recorded a huge run, only sockeye salmon from the Fraser River. It’s also unclear how plankton travels up the food chain to salmon, which don’t feed on it directly. McKinnell contends Fraser River salmon did not even migrate through the plankton bloom. Parsons doesn’t agree, but he did write in his original paper that the reasons for the record salmon run will likely remain an “enigma.”
Given the uncertain outcome, the shaky business case and George’s background, it’s hard for outsiders to imagine why Old Massett would back the plan. One Fisheries Department official I talked to on the condition of anonymity wondered, “How could they be so gullible?” It’s not that simple, as Brandon Kallio explained. We met on his fishing boat one rainy afternoon at the port in Masset. A burly guy wearing a ball cap, Kallio brought his six-year-old daughter, Presly, with him as he got ready for halibut season. Kallio, a Haida, worked on the Ocean Pearl and helped pour the iron overboard. He saw it as an opportunity to help the village and gain more independence from the government. Fishing isn’t as lucrative as it used to be, and he still has a family to help support. Sometimes at the end of the season he’s left with just a few thousand dollars. “We’re on the brink right now,” he said. “If we have a chance to do something, maybe we should do it. ’Cause what am I going to tell these guys?” he asked, pointing to Presly.
The community has also done a lot for Kallio. A few years ago, he left with his family for work in Comox. One day, his one-year-old daughter, Deanna, choked on a grape and collapsed on the kitchen floor. She had stopped breathing for a few minutes and was ultimately flown to a Vancouver hospital. Doctors thought Deanna would suffer brain damage, and she required weeks of recovery at a facility in Burnaby. Kallio stopped working, and living expenses piled up. Back in Old Massett, residents organized fundraisers—bingo nights, bake sales—and pulled together $18,000. “For that to happen, it’s just incredible,” Kallio recalled. Deanna recovered, though she requires extra help in school, and Kallio has her name tattooed across his neck. It’s only natural he would want to do something for Old Massett.
On my last day on Haida Gwaii, I crossed paths with Disney and Rea at the airport. (There is only one flight each day, and the pair was returning from Vancouver.) When I caught up with them in the parking lot, Rea scowled from behind his cigarette smoke and said without prompting that there had been a vote on the project and the community accepted it. Disney groused about the media’s unfair coverage and alluded to legal actions. “We’ve got two lists of journalists,” he said. “We’ll find out which one to put you on.”
Disney later agreed to talk on the phone. He was mystified by the controversy and felt like he was on trial. “The scientists who are really qualified and really know what they’re talking about—and I’m talking right up to the top of the scale—were always very supportive.” He declined to identify anyone to protect them from the “ruthless behaviour of the media.” Before the vote, he says he held at least 15 public meetings—not three—and there was no attempt to push it through quickly before an environmental group could find out. Disney had a lot of praise for George, too. “I’m a guy who runs on his instincts, and I’ve never had a bad read off Russ. He’s never lied to me,” he said. “He’s an incredibly intelligent person and he has these outrageous ideas, but he has an uncanny ability to be right.” He’ll be proved right again, Disney promised. “All the people calling us junk scientists, rogues—all that goes away.”
In March 2013, Environment Canada raided the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation’s office in Vancouver as part of an investigation into whether the company broke the law by conducting the iron experiment. A blog post on the company’s website said an “armed SWAT team accompanied [by] government functionaries” held staff at “gunpoint.” (Police officers carried guns, but never drew them.) The raid couldn’t have been too much of a surprise. The HSRC informed the ministry about its plan long before it poured any iron into the ocean, and Environment Canada warned the HSRC it would need to apply for a disposal-at-sea permit. The HSRC never did. Soon after the company finished its mission at sea, the ministry launched an investigation into 10 counts of potentially illegal ocean disposal. The HSRC fought to have the search warrant declared invalid, but in February of this year, a judge dismissed the company’s complaint. The investigation is ongoing.
Joe Spears, a lawyer who has acted on behalf of the HSRC, argues a permit wasn’t necessary since iron is a natural substance. Old Massett should be praised, not vilified, for conducting ocean research when the federal government is cutting back, he says. As for the U.N. conventions discouraging iron fertilization except for small-scale experiments for legitimate scientific research, Spears points out they’re only guidelines, and ill-defined at that. There is no threshold for what constitutes a small experiment, and even “legitimate scientific research” is debatable. “Does it mean it has to be done in an academic setting? Does it mean you need a PhD?” says Spears. The fact that the HSRC is trying to profit doesn’t undercut its legitimacy, he says, since the company needs a way to fund more research.
There is litigation to resolve first, in any event. In May of last year, the HSRC issued a press release with the ominous headline: “Haida announce termination of Russ George.” The company removed him as a director and cited the need to “move forward in a constructive fashion.” I had previously sent George a list of questions that he never answered, but he would reply if I had a question about a scientific claim he had made. (His responses were never helpful: “Surely you jest...Do you take us for fools?”) I called him the day his firing was announced anyway. He said the board overstepped its authority and that he remained a shareholder. I asked if he was planning to sue. “I’m not willing to talk to you any further,” he seethed. “You’re just a despicable human being, and you should be ashamed of yourself.” Then he hung up.
Both George and the HSRC filed lawsuits against each other in January. The HSRC’s suit shows the relationship was fractured from nearly the beginning. On the first journey to dump iron aboard the Ocean Pearl, George’s behaviour was “irrational, unprofessional and offensive,” according to court documents. He physically assaulted a crew member, and the ship returned to shore early because the crew member refused to work. (George denies the incident.) When the ship ventured out again, the company implemented a policy to limit George’s communication with others. Later, the board tried to prevent him from responding to media inquiries because his comments were “factually inaccurate” and “highly unprofessional.” George even agreed to buy a 2002 Dodge Caravan belonging to the HSRC for $1,100. He took the van, but never paid. None of the claims have been proven, and the HSRC has since discontinued its suit.
George is pursuing his case against the company, however, claiming that he was unjustly shut out starting early last year, when two unknown individuals sought to influence the Old Massett council to exclude him. The company then either failed or refused to pay his firm, which owns 48% of the HSRC, a $15,000 monthly management fee. Soon after, the HSRC couldn’t pay its rent and decided to move its property should the landlord seize anything. George took a few computers and plankton samples for safekeeping, but contends the company accused him of theft and improperly fired him.
In a counterclaim, the HSRC says George misrepresented himself. He professes to have a degree from the University of Utah and that the Japanese Institute of Physics, Osaka, recognizes him as a “doctor of physics.” He led Disney to believe he was the “world’s most knowledgeable person” on iron fertilization and that he had relationships with international experts. The company contends none of that is true. George contributed very little to the iron fertilization project, according to the court documents. Many times, the company asked him to share his proprietary knowledge for verifying and measuring sequestered CO2, but he never did. The HSRC concluded George had nothing to share.
Old Massett is a long way from recouping its money, if it ever does. Jason McNamee is trying, though. He had been with the HSRC from the beginning, but recently left to join a new venture called Blue Carbon, which is working with the HSRC to monetize its carbon credits. “It really does make sense,” McNamee says of iron fertilization. “If we do it properly, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be able to accomplish our goals.” (Also part of Blue Carbon is Michiel Riedijk, a Vancouver technology entrepreneur who operates a small venture capital fund and founded a company that archives websites and social media feeds.) McNamee says they are at least a year away from being in a position to sell any credits. There is no consensus for verifying carbon sequestered by iron fertilization and, so far, no standards body has been willing to certify such credits. McNamee says Blue Carbon is working with one large certification firm, but he can’t name it yet.
Since splitting with George, McNamee has tried to raise the project’s credibility. A scientist is even publicly working with the HSRC. John Bird, a professor of engineering science at Simon Fraser University, serves on its advisory board. In an interview, he was careful to say he was not involved with the iron fertilization. “I’m not saying go out there and fertilize the oceans,” he says. “I’m saying consider the possibilities of this being a positive thing instead of a negative thing.” Victor Smetacek, the scientist in Germany whom George unsuccessfully tried to recruit years ago, remains a believer that iron fertilization has the potential to aid marine life under certain circumstances. His own research has focused on using iron to boost declining blue whale populations in the Antarctic Ocean. “The problem, is iron fertilization has become tainted because of the commercialization that is implied with it,” Smetacek says. “He spoiled the whole thing,” he says of George. “This kind of experiment should have been done, but by scientists in a totally transparent fashion.”
The U.N. is cracking down even further today. In October, its maritime body proposed regulating such projects due to concern that the process can “cause harm to marine environments.” The U.N. says the move was not based on any one event, but McNamee says that U.N. officials he’s spoken with told him the HSRC’s activities were entirely responsible for the decision.
One clue about the project’s impact could be revealed later this year, when salmon born in 2012, the same year of the plankton bloom, return to rivers to spawn. “My gut feel is there’s something here,” Bird says. Timothy Parsons, the scientist who hatched the volcano theory, says the company has a shot at boosting salmon, provided it deposited the iron at the right time and place to benefit migrating fish. (Parsons was even approached by the HSRC about working together, but he declined. “This project was put in place far too rapidly. It should have received international review by scientists,” he wrote in an e-mail.)
Others contend the premise doesn’t hold together. “There’s no evidence salmon are suffering from a lack of food in and around Haida Gwaii,” says Michael Healey, a professor emeritus of biological oceanography at the University of British Columbia. The North Pacific has long been deficient in iron, which suggests plankton abundance might not be responsible for collapsing salmon stocks. “They’re really trying to connect dots where maybe there’s no real connection,” says Maria Maldonado, an expert in plankton at UBC. “If they get an amazing salmon return, I think it’s just by chance.” Even McNamee says a huge salmon return doesn’t mean the project was successful. “We won’t know the cause,” he says. He’d like to perform a genetic analysis of salmon once they return to determine if they passed through the plankton bloom. That position is far more cautious than what Old Massett was told before it spent $2.5 million on the experiment.
George doesn’t seem to share those concerns. He’s already taking credit for a record number of pink salmon returns off the coast of Alaska last year. “Not a bad result for me, an old fishing boat and 11 shipmates,” he wrote on his website. I called him again, and while he wouldn’t comment on the litigation, he was eager to trumpet his success. “I set out to replenish and restore ocean pastures, upon which fish depend, and we did so,” he said. “This is science. This isn’t some kind of bullshit hype.” But George should have some idea of how many salmon could come back. He should also know how many salmon would have returned had he not deposited any iron. “I’m not willing to talk to you about such things,” he snapped. “I don’t consider you an honest or an ethical person. Your manner has been, frankly, quite offensive.” He hung up.
George, who wants nothing more than to triumph over his doubters, wasn’t willing to make a prediction, perhaps because he himself could end up proven wrong. It’s easier to take credit for a positive result after the fact. When it comes to whether his grand experiment will ultimately benefit Old Massett, George might be just as in the dark as the rest of us.