Bering Sea Canyons

Page - January 23, 2008
The Bering Sea is home to some of the largest submarine canyons in the world. These unique habitats are deep enough to provide refuges for species that have literally no place else to hide from industrial fishing operations, and are likely to be home for creatures that have yet to be seen with human eyes. Due to their isolation, there could well be species living in the depths of the canyons that can be found nowhere else on earth. Meanwhile, factory trawlers drag nets across the canyon walls, uprooting fragile corals and sponges that provide habitat for a host of other species. Some of these slow-growing corals can be hundreds or even thousands of years old.

We'll Give them Proof

While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) acknowledges that the canyons are diverse and rare habitats, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council announced in December, 2006 that not enough was known about these areas to justify their protection.

Our response was to pull together an expedition to document previously unexplored canyon habitats in hopes of making a legally and publicly compelling case for conservation of these important areas. Read more about our expeditions >>

Under the new provisions in the reauthorized Magnuson Stevens Fishery Management Act, policy makers will be compelled to protect areas that are demonstrated to be coral habitats. It is our hope that the data we obtained on our expedition will lead to new protections for these spectacular places as well as deepening our understanding of the canyons' role in the Bering Sea ecosystem.

Zhemchug and Pribilof

Zhemchug Canyon is the world's largest undersea canyon. It drops down to a depth of greater than 2,600 meters, and is as much as 100 kilometers across. Pribilof Canyon is enormous as well, with a volume of 1,300 cubic kilometers.  To help put that in perspective, both the Pribilof and Zhemchug Canyons are larger and deeper than Arizona's Grand Canyon. Our 2007 expedition was the first in situ exploration of Zhemchug Canyon of any kind, and the first manned submersible exploration of Pribilof Canyon. We used an ROV and two Deep Worker mini-submarines to explore the canyons.

It will take years for scientists to fully evaluate all the data we gathered, but it is clear that the corals and sponges found in these canyons provide essential habitat for marine life.  We found at least twelve species of coral, and at least eighteen species of sponge.  Many of the corals and sponges we found were previously unrecorded in the Bering Sea or at least unknown that far north, a testament to both how little is known about the deep sea and how unique these canyons are. Unfortunately, we also found considerable evidence of damage from fishing - broken corals and long trenches dug into the seafloor.

The question now is whether policy makers will do anything with these findings.  We will not give up until they do.

Explore the canyons through our videos and photos