It may look slimy and slightly alien, but this newly discovered species of sponge is an ambassador for undiscovered critters living in the nooks and crannies of our magnificent planet. Damaging human activities, like bottom trawling in the oceans, are decimating ecosystems and wiping out creatures before we even know they exist.
The new sponge species, Aaptos kanuux, is named for the Aleut word for "heart" and was discovered in the deep underwater canyons of the Bering Sea. It was named by Greenpeace campaigner George Pletnikoff and St. George Eco-Office Director Andrew Malavansky, to emphasize that the canyons represent the heart of the Bering Sea. The sponge was collected by Kenneth Lowyck of Greenpeace Canada with a Deep Worker submarine at a depth of 700 feet in Pribilof Canyon. This is the first record of the genus for the Bering Sea.
Greenpeace journeyed to the Bering Sea in 2007 to document previously unexplored canyon habitats in hopes of strengthening the case to protect these important areas. Half of the fourteen species of corals and two-thirds of the twenty species of sponge we collected were previously unknown to live in the Bering Sea. These findings underscore the unique nature of these canyons, as well as how little is known about the deep sea in general.
With these new discoveries and documented evidence of habitat damage due to bottom trawling in these sensitive areas, Greenpeace is pushing forward with efforts to establish marine reserves in the Bering Sea. Of the 900,000 square miles of ocean managed by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, almost none is protected from all fishing.
To start informing policy makers about these findings, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) ecologist Bob Stone and Greenpeace scientist John Hocevar presented the new findings at the Alaska Marine Science Symposium. You can see their report online.
Greenpeace continues to campaign for marine reserves despite strong opposition from fishing interests who have grown accustomed to having the loudest voice in ocean management issues. Despite recommending that the canyons be prioritized for research at their December 2006 meeting, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council has not moved to incorporate these findings into management efforts. The Council is not planning to consider reviewing proposals for listing new Habitat Areas of Particular Concern until 2009, and has refused requests to provide time on Council meeting agendas to discuss these new findings.
The Bering Sea is home to some of the largest submarine canyons in the world. These unique habitats contain areas that are deep enough to provide refuges for species that have literally no place else to hide from industrial fishing operations, but much of the canyons remain vulnerable. Greenpeace will continue to advocate for marine reserves to help protect species like Aaptos kanuux and all the other species that have yet to be discovered by human eyes.