By Nicole Mordant
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Leaders of a tiny, native village off Canada's remote northwest coast on Friday defended their decision to dump 120 tons of iron dust into the ocean as a legal experiment to revive salmon stocks, but Canada said it was investigating a possible breach of environmental law.
The village council conducted its C$2.5 million ($2.52 million) experiment in August in the waters around Haida Gwaii, an archipelago some 130 kilometers (81 miles) off the British Columbian coast.
In a project that has drawn widespread condemnation from scientists concerned about the impacts of unsupervised studies, the village employed scientists, biologists and technicians to pour iron sulphate into the water.
A spokesman for Canadian Environment Minister Peter Kent said officials had launched an investigation into the incident. Environment Canada warned the group in May that depositing iron ore in waters was a violation of Canadian environmental laws except in the case of legitimate research, he said.
Ocean fertilization is not currently allowed under Canadian environmental laws because it is considered a form of disposal at sea.
The Old Massett Village Council on Haida Gwaii was encouraged to press ahead with its "ocean fertilization" project by "scientific correlations" between a 2008 volcanic eruption in the Aleutian Islands and increased plankton pastures in the oceans, economic development officer John Disney said.
Like ash from volcanic eruptions, iron ore is rich in mineral micronutrients that some believe can restore the ocean's plankton pastures, which salmon and other marine life feed on.
"When we added iron to the ocean we discovered an almost immediate impact on marine life," Disney told a press conference in Vancouver.
It is unclear if the experiment will damage the surrounding environment, but scientists fear that the rise of rogue experiments might have negative effects for the environment.
The Haida nation relies heavily on salmon fishing for their livelihood, but a downturn in stocks has driven up unemployment in Old Massett to 70 percent.
Disney said the village council had obtained legal advice that the experiment was legal and consulted with "several" Canadian federal ministries and research councils.
An official with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization said UNESCO, like other scientists, was concerned about "unsupervised experiments of this nature."
"Science is uncertain. ... Such large-scale fertilizations could have unintended impacts, not only locally but also further afield," said Wendy Watson-Wright, executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission of UNESCO.
The Haida nation distanced themselves from the project, saying they were in no way involved.
"The consequences of tampering with nature at this scale are not predictable and pose unacceptable risks to the marine environment," Guujaaw, president of the Haida Nation, said in a statement.
($1 = 0.9908 Canadian dollars)
(Additional reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Janet Guttsman and Leslie Adler)