Greenpeace explores underwater canyons, calls for their protection

by John Hocevar

July 12, 2012

Greenpeace has returned to theworld’s largest underwater canyons, here in the Bering Sea, to continue ourefforts to protect these amazing ecosystems.

Today, factory trawl ships pull up over a million tons of fish here each year and theirenormousnets scrape along the seafloor, destroying coral habitats in these submarine canyons that are critical for fish, crabs and other marine life.

After years of Greenpeace and others calling for their protection, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council declined once again in 2006 to protect these canyons, saying there wasnt enough information available about the canyons to justify action.

We are not very good at taking no for an answer when it comes to defending the planet, so we took the Councils decision as a challenge. In 2007, we set out with the Greenpeace ship Esperanza, along with two small submarines, to explore the canyons and provide the council with the data it said was missing.

Zhemchug CanyonThese corals, sponges, and other marine life are currently unprotected, and could be destroyed by enormous trawl nets dragged throughZhemchug Canyon.

Our findings, which were published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, helpedpersuade the council to reconsider. We documented 15 species of deep sea corals in the canyons, in higher densities found almost anywhere else in the world.

We demonstrated that the corals provide critical habitat for fish and other marine life. We even discovered a new species of sponge, named Aaptos kanuux after the Aleut word for heart. Aleuts from St. George, the island closest to the canyons, wanted to emphasize that the canyons are the heart of the Bering Sea.

In April, the council voted to begin a new review of the available science and management, a move that we expect will lead to new protections for the Grand Canyons of the Sea.

We are now back in Alaskas Bering Sea with a new submarine, to continue our exploration of these spectacular canyons and strengthen the case for their protection. We will visit previously unexplored parts of the canyons, collect samples of corals and other species of special interest to scientists, and document the impacts of trawling and other forms of industrial fishing on sensitive habitats.

As we work to try and limit the damage from trawling to these canyons, we’re also reminded that we still have a chance to get it right in the Arctic. This type of industrial fishing hasnt yet reached the waters further north in the Chukchi Sea butindustrialfishing fleets are eyeing the north as the sea ice melts.

That’s why we’re calling for aban on industrial fishing and offshore drillingin Arctic waters – to protect the habitats, wildlife and people that depend on this pristine environment.

Returning from the first submarine dive in Zhemchug Canyon, the world’s largest underwater canyon. Photo by Jiri Rezac/Greenpeace

John Hocevar

By John Hocevar

An accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine biologist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in 2004.

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