Protection Ahead for Undersea Grand Canyons?

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In 2007, when John Hocevar, director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in the United States, stood before a large crowd during a meeting of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), the reaction was not exactly favorable. 

"Hostile," was the word Hocevar used to describe the response during a conversation with Discovery News recently. "They basically used the entire questioning period to tell me I didn't know what I was talking about."

What he was talking about was an expedition he had conducted, in collaboration with researchers from NOAA and the University of California at Santa Barbara, which involved using two-person submersibles launched from the deck of the Greenpeace ship Esperanza to explore the Zhemchug and Pribilof Canyons, below the surface of the Bering Sea. (Full disclosure: although I was not on board at that time, I joined the Esperanza immediately afterward on a voyage to the Aleutian Island of Amchitka.)

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Zhemchug is the largest underwater canyon on Earth; it and the slightly smaller Pribilof Canyon are carved into the ocean floor in what is called the "Green Belt" of the Bering region, where the continental shelf ends and where upwelling currents carry high nutrient waters from the depths of the Aleutian Basin to the shallow Bering Sea shelf. One of the most productive stretches of ocean in the world, the area supports millions of sea birds, hundreds of thousands of fur seals, as well as whales and other marine mammals.

There are fish, too: literally, millions of tons of them, with over a million a year – the bulk of them pollock – being caught by commercial fisheries. However, although the region's fisheries are considered by-and-large to be well managed, there are, says Hocevar, some 'blind spots' – including the area around the canyons.

In 2006, the NPFMC turned back proposals that the canyons be granted some form of protection on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence they needed any. The following year, Hocevar and others descended from the deck of the Esperanza and provided that documentary evidence: footage and photographs of deep-sea corals and sponges, and a more vibrant benthic ecosystem that had been believed to exist.

But there were signs, too, of the impact of fishing in the form of damage and scarring from trawlers and longliners. As a result, Hocevar went to NPFMC and urged the establishment of a marine reserve around the canyons; as a result, the Council metaphorically pelted him with rotten fruit and booed him off the stage.

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Five years later, however, the situation was somewhat different. When Hocevar spoke to the Council again, in Anchorage last week, the reception, although not exactly a love-in, was entirely more cordial.

This time, Hocevar was armed with a paper that he and three scientists from NOAA and UCSB had published in the journal PLoS One, detailing the findings of the 2007 Esperanza expedition: deep-sea coral densities higher than most other studied areas of the global ocean; records of corals not previously known to exist in the Bering Sea; high numbers of deep-sea sponges and a species of sponge that had previously never been seen before, anywhere. 

"They were still people who clearly weren't happy to hear about our findings," said Hocevar of his most recent Council appearance, "but this time the conversation was more about understanding the data and what it might mean for management. Most importantly, with support from industry, the Council voted to open up a process that would review the science concerning the canyons."

Exactly what the result of that process would be remains to be seen. Hocevar concedes that a reserve of the kind he pitched five years ago is still unpopular with much of the fishing industry; however, he says that the Council does now seem as if it may be in favor of at least protecting some of the newly-described coral areas.

"The question now," adds Hocevar, "is whether protections are put in place in time to prevent much further damage to these underwater Grand Canyons." 

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Top photograph: Giant Pacific octopus, photographed from a submersible during the 2007 Esperanza expedition. Bottom photograph: A Dall's porpoise investigates a descending submersible. Photographs by Greenpeace.

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