The Best Science on Alaska’s Bering Sea Canyons Just Got Better

by Jackie Dragon

July 22, 2015

Scientists have recently made critical new discoveries about some of the most ecologically significant waters in the United States: the Bering Sea canyons. With new information in hand, the case for Bering Sea conservation has never been stronger.

The Sea Floor

Shortraker rockfish, crinoids, brittle stars, basket stars, anenones and more, seen on the sea floor by a manned submersible during undersea research of Zhemchug Canyon in the Bering Sea.

© Greenpeace

In more good news for ocean conservation, scientists have recently made critical new discoveries about some of the most ecologically significant waters in the United States: the Bering Sea canyons. Two new studies have mapped the area and its teeming “Green Belt” like never before, pinpointing the locations of fragile coral and sponge habitat in need of protection.

With this new information in hand, the case for protecting these key regions in the Bering Sea has never been stronger.

Two Studies Confirm Importance of the Green Belt

The first new study, by the Marine Science Institute at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and Greenpeace, found that the Pribilof canyon is the most significant location for deep-sea corals and sponges along the entire eastern Bering Sea shelf. It also found that restricting destructive bottom-contact fishing methods in Bering Sea canyons would not have significant negative impacts on the fishing industry. With protections in place for coral and sponge habitat, Bering Sea fish and king crab populations could increase, as well.

“Despite comprising a very small percentage of the total study area, Pribilof canyon contains roughly half of the soft corals and sponge habitat in the entire region we examined,” said Robert Miller, a research biologist at UCSB and the paper’s lead author. “It’s clear that this remarkable habitat warrants protections to ensure the health of the surrounding ecosystem into the future.”

Days earlier, NOAA scientists released another report with the results of their camera-drop survey of the Bering Sea slope—the highly productive zone known as the Green Belt. The study, requested by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, found that Pribilof canyon appears to contain half of the region’s coral, despite making up just 10 percent of the Green Belt zone. The habitat makes the canyon an important home for rockfish and king crab. Parts of Zhemchug canyon also stood out for their high amounts of sponge habitat.

All of this confirms the unique nature of the Green Belt area: nearly all of the coral and sponge habitat in the Bering Sea is found here, yet none of it has been protected.

Inside the Battle to Protect the Bering Sea

Managing America’s fisheries is big business—in 2011 the U.S. landed over 10 billion pounds of fish, worth more than 5 billion dollars. It’s also critical to the health of our oceans. If we take too many fish, the whole population can crash. If we destroy fish habitats, the ecosystem that wildlife and people alike depend upon could be irreversibly altered.

In Alaska’s Bering Sea, which accounts more than half of the seafood caught in the U.S., conservation groups have been urging protection for the Bering Sea canyons for more than a dozen years. In 2006, fishery managers concluded that little was known about the area, so they upheld status quo fishing and made learning more about the area a high priority for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

For the first time in 2007, and again in 2012, Greenpeace led the first in-situ exploration of the canyons. The results of those studies should play an important role in informing the Council on this issue.

But it wasn’t until more than 200,000 individuals, indigenous organizations, NGOs and businesses urged the Council to do more that it called for additional government research.

Significantly, the Council heard from a group of stakeholders that have everything to gain from ensuring the conservation of our most valuable fishery resources—supermarkets. Eleven of our nation’s largest supermarket chains have called on the Council to address protections for the area, including Ahold, Costco, Giant Eagle, Hy-Vee, Roundy’s, Safeway, Southeastern Grocers, SUPERVALU, Trader Joe’s, Wegmans, and Whole Foods Market. Bon Appétit recently brought the issue to Huffington Post readers, and arguably the largest purchaser of Alaskan pollock for filet-o-fish fare—McDonald’s—is the most recent company to call for action.

Now that fishery managers have the science they were waiting for, will they finally put conservation measures in place?

What Are We Waiting For? Protect the Bering Sea Canyons

Alaska’s fisheries hold a stellar reputation for being some of the best-managed resources in the world and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council prides itself on using the best available science to guide its decisions.

Well, the science is in.  We know where the coral and sponge habitat is in the Bering Sea and we know it is extremely vulnerable to destructive fishing methods. The public—for whom these resources are managed—has spoken.

Now, the Council needs to listen to the people and to our government. NOAA’s strategic guidance instructs it to “protect areas containing known deep-sea coral and sponge communities from impacts of bottom-tending fishing gear.” The Mid-Atlantic Council took the lead on conserving corals and sponges in its canyons last month.

Now all eyes are on the North Pacific to do the same.

Jackie Dragon

By Jackie Dragon

Jackie Dragon formerly served as a senior oceans campaigner at Greenpeace USA. Jackie has been campaigning to protect important places in the ocean since 2008. Her current focus is on the Bering Sea, where she fights to conserve the largest submarine canyons in the world from destructive industrial fishing practices.

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