What About the Canyons?

Feature story - February 11, 2010
When members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council looked out their hotel and around the meeting rooms and sessions, they were reminded of the deep sea canyons that they're failing to protect. Greenpeace reminded them on newspapers, napkins, pens and t-shirts.

This week, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meets in Portland, Oregon to discuss whether any new protections are needed within the approximately one million square miles of the ocean managed by the Council. The Council is dominated by fishing interests and historically, management has leaned in favor of industrial fishing over ocean ecosystem health.

Greenpeace has been calling attention to a unique area within the NPFMC's jurisdiction, the Bering Sea (waters between the United States and Russia). It's home to some of the largest submarine canyons in the world. The Bering Sea is also home to a diverse array of wildlife. Polar bears, seals, sea lions, walruses, whales and millions of seabirds call the Bering Sea home.

Many people aren't aware that more than half the fish we catch in the United States comes from Alaska, including salmon, pollock, king crab, and Pacific cod. This makes the Bering Sea one of the most productive fishing spots in the world. Unfortunately, the NPFMC serves the short term interests of industrial fishing operations at the expense of ecosystem health and native communities.

To this day, there are still no areas within the Bering Sea that are fully protected from fishing. This major oversight (or intentional omission) by the NPFMC has dire consequences for the Bering Sea ecosystem, native communities and the undiscovered wildlife that lives at ocean depths previously untouched by man.

Bering Sea Canyons

Bering Witness

In 2007, Greenpeace went on an expedition to the Bering Sea to research the bountiful wildlife and unseen species that live in deep water canyons. Greenpeace and NOAA documented the presence of at least 14 species of deep-water corals and 20 sponge species in Zhemchug and Pribilof canyons. These fragile coral and sponge communities provide habitat for a high diversity of marine life, including commercially important fish and crab.

Greenpeace has been using these findings to quantify to regulators that the Bering Sea needs permanent protection in the form of marine reserves. NOAA has reported to Congress that Pribilof and Zhemchug Canyons are areas containing deep-sea corals that currently lack protection and are vulnerable to fishing impacts.

For three years, Greenpeace and marine scientists have been presenting this information, but nothing has been done to help save these fragile ocean ecosystems.

The Heart of the Bering Sea

Many of the coral and sponge species documented by Greenpeace during their 2007 Bering Sea Canyons expedition were previously unknown to the entire Bering Sea. One sponge is new to science. The sponge was named Aaptos kanuux after the Aleut word for "heart," to emphasize the Pribilof Islanders' view that the canyons are the heart of the Bering Sea.

Marine Reserves are the Answer

In order to protect the ocean ecosystem and native communities, marine reserves must be set up by the NPFMC. Marine reserves are a proven tool to rebuild fish populations, provide a buffer against uncertainty, and protect biological diversity. It's the only way we can save the Bering Sea, before it's too late and the last remaining coral is finally destroyed by a factory trawler.