Changing Planet

Protect the Grand Canyons of the Ocean

Hidden below the surface of Alaska’s icy waters lie the world’s largest underwater canyons, both more massive than America’s Grand Canyon. Home to orcas, walrus and fur seals, albatross and kittiwakes, king crab, squid, salmon and coldwater corals, brittle stars and sponges, the continental slope and canyons of the Bering Sea (known as the Bering Sea “Green Belt”) are home to an immense diversity of wildlife. Spanning more than 770,000 square miles between Western Alaska and Russia’s Siberian coast, the Bering Sea is an area of immense ecological value is also the source of more than half of the seafood caught in the United States and is subject to devastating commercial fishing tactics. This week, Mission Blue is launching a petition to urge Alaska’s North Pacific Fishery Management Council to protect the Bering Sea Green Belt.

Deep-sea corals photographed during a Greenpeace-sponsored expedition with NOAA Fisheries. © Greenpeace
Deep-sea corals photographed during a Greenpeace-sponsored expedition with NOAA Fisheries. © Greenpeace

When Mission Blue founder and National Geographic Explorer in Residence Dr. Sylvia Earle named the Bering Sea Canyons as the 19th Mission Blue Hope Spot in 2013, she highlighted the importance of this vibrant ecosystem as a part of the “life support system” we know as the ocean. With healthy fish stocks and bottom-dwelling communities of corals and sponges come healthy populations of whales, sharks and the greatest predator of all – humans. The vast food web that the Bering Sea sustains makes global ripples throughout the ocean, providing nutrients to numerous fish species that are the lifeblood of commercial fisheries in Alaska and beyond. In fact, the Bering Sea supports some of the largest salmon, crab, and whitefish fisheries in the world.[i]

Commercial fishing in the Bering Sea canyons and Green Belt brings with it an arsenal of destructive tools like bottom trawlers, which scrape the seafloor like lawn mowers and destroy everything in their paths – including cold-water corals that are hundreds of years old. Fishing methods like this are also inefficient, bringing in tons of bycatch.

Boat fishing for crabs in the Bering Sea. © NIOSH
Boat fishing for crabs in the Bering Sea. © NIOSH

Alaska’s North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC) is charged with shaping fishing policy in the region. For over a decade the NPFMC has considered requests to safeguard the Bering Sea canyons and Green Belt from harmful fishing tactics that destroy fragile benthic communities along the seafloor. These deliberations have resulted in lots of valuable data collection to identify significant concentrations of deep-sea corals and sponges, but little actual policy change. Greenpeace Senior Oceans Campaigner and friend of Mission Blue Jackie Dragon has been a voice of reason for this process since joining the Greenpeace campaign to protect the Bering Sea, which has already garnered over 200,000 supporters. She has written extensively on the subject and testified before the NPFMC about the importance of moving forward from data collection to the lengthy process of scoping and analyzing various alternatives to the harmful fishing tactics currently being implemented in the region.

With this new petition, Mission Blue hopes to ignite public support among an even greater community to stand alongside the more than 200,000 people, environmental and indigenous groups, and hundreds of businesses – including many of our nation’s largest supermarkets like Safeway, Costco and Trader Joe’s – to call on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to protect these treasured habitats. We urge the council to implement a network of benthic protected areas that includes a representative sample of habitats found in the Bering Sea canyons and Green Belt and to move swiftly to analyze options for mitigating fishing impacts.

Join Mission Blue and urge the council to take decisive action. It’s time to bring balance to the Bering Sea.

Sign the petition and add your voice!



(Updated 7/29/2015)

Courtney is dedicated to sparking public and political support for the protection of marine ecosystems. With a Master of Arts in environmental studies from Brown University, she has a deep understanding of marine conservation science and policy—particularly regarding coral reef ecosystems—and believes in finding creative ways to bring ocean issues above the surface to inspire conservation. Courtney works as Special Projects Consultant for Mission Blue—an ocean conservation organization founded by famed oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle—and is also a prominent environmental artist. She was born and raised in San Francisco and lives in Los Angeles.
  • Glenn Reed

    This opinion piece lacks factual credibility, although the author is entitled to her opinion.


    AFSC News
    Revised June 30, 2015

    What Did Scientists See During the Eastern Bering Sea Canyon Survey?

    The Bering Sea canyons occur along the continental slope.

    The waters of the eastern Bering Sea support large marine mammal and bird populations and some of the most profitable and sustainable commercial fisheries in the country.

    In the eastern Bering Sea several hundred miles from shore, the seafloor descends into the abyss. Most of the continental slope makes a gradual descent, but in several places, canyons interrupt the regular topography. The seafloor of the slope is primarily composed of sand, mud, gravel or other coarse materials.

    In recent years the advancement in technology has allowed us to peer deeper into the depths and study bottom dwelling creatures like corals.

    Because these species are vulnerable to fishing impacts, resource managers in Alaska were eager for scientists to use this technology to identify areas where corals were concentrated, particularly in relation to two eastern Bering Sea canyons — Pribilof and Zhemchug.

    Chris Rooper is a NOAA Fisheries Research Biologist with the Alaska Fisheries Science Center. He is one of the lead scientists on this journey to finding the answers.

    Last summer Chris worked with a team of NOAA Fisheries scientists to conduct a research survey in the eastern Bering Sea. The team collected 225,000 (3-D) video images of the seafloor, the continental slope, and several underwater canyons at depths of around 300 feet to just over 2,600 feet. The study area spanned depths where a lot of the fishing activity takes place.

    Click here to read the final report for this survey.

    The following questions and answers provide more detailed background on why the survey was conducted, what was learned during the survey and how this new information is being used to inform fishery management decisions.

    Q. What prompted interest in the canyons?
    A. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the fishery management body that develops management measures for commercial and recreational fisheries in federal waters off Alaska, wanted to determine if coral concentrations in two canyons in the eastern Bering Sea, Pribilof and Zhemchug, warranted further protection from fishing activity. They asked scientists to collect information on coral presence inside and outside the canyons, information on the height and density of coral found, and the role of these coral as fish habitat. They also wanted scientists to document the presence, degree of fishing gear effects and the expected vulnerability of the canyons to anthropogenic activity (including fishing).

    Q. What was NOAA Fisheries role in this?
    A. We analyzed all existing data on the canyons and surrounding areas and input a subset of these data into scientific models. The models produced predictions of where coral was likely to occur, both inside and outside the canyons.

    Q. What did you learn from the initial analyses?
    A. Pribilof and Zhemchug canyons did not appear to be biologically unique compared to the rest of the eastern Bering Sea slope. Species distribution and abundance in these two canyons appeared similar to other canyons and adjacent slope areas in the eastern Bering Sea. However, the models of where coral habitat occurs predicted that most of the coral in the eastern Bering Sea was located in Pribilof Canyon and to the west of Pribilof Canyon along the slope. The full report from this initial analysis in 2013 can be found here, and in a scientific article published in 2015.

    Q. What happened next?
    A. More recently, the Council requested that we conduct a research survey on the water to ground truth the coral model and our initial analyses.

    Q. When was the survey conducted?
    A. We conducted the survey during the summer and fall of 2014.

    Q. What did the survey entail?
    A. It involved deploying underwater cameras from a research vessel in Pribilof and Zhemchug canyons and in areas around these canyons along the slope. We were trying to pinpoint areas of coral concentration, evaluate the role of coral as fish and crab habitat, and document fishing impacts. We put our cameras into the water at 250 randomly selected locations along the Bering Sea slope and canyons and collected 225,000 video images.

    Q. What species did the survey focus on?
    A. At the Council’s request, we focused our research on validating the coral model, which includes corals such as gorgonian and bamboo corals that predominately grow on hard, rocky bottoms. However, because we surveyed a variety of habitats inside and outside the canyons, the survey also provided us with an opportunity to collect information on other species such as sponges and sea whips. Sea whips are also a coral species, but one which grows on sandy bottoms.

    Q. What information did you expect to derive from the collected photos?
    A. We analyzed the collected images to see if coral, sponges and sea whips occurred in the areas we expected to see them, based on our model predictions. We also used the photos to gather information on the height and density, or amount of coral found in various areas, to determine if fish and other commercially important crab species were using these areas as habitat. We also were able to document the presence and degree of fishing gear effects in the sampled areas. All of this information will help managers better determine if there are key areas that warrant protective measures.

    Q. What did you learn?
    A. The results validate our previous modelling and analysis work, confirming that most coral habitat (for the species that predominantly grow on hard, rocky bottom) occurs inside Pribilof Canyon and along the Bering Sea slope to the west of Pribilof Canyon. In general, coral densities throughout our survey area were low even where they occurred. This is not surprising as the eastern Bering Sea seafloor contains little of the rocky habitat that is conducive to coral growth. Sea whip densities were highest in sandy portions of the slope and outer shelf throughout our survey area.

    Q. Were there unique habitat features (e.g., bottom types) in the canyons as compared to areas outside the canyons?
    A. Corals need rocky, hard bottoms to attach to and thrive. In most of the images, from both inside and outside the canyons, the observed seafloor consisted primarily of mud, sand, gravel, or coarse material—not conducive to the habitat requirements of this type of coral. Only about 2.8% of the habitat contained some type of rocky substrate (e.g., cobble, boulder, or exposed bedrock) and only 0.8% had rocky substrate as the primary habitat.

    Q. Of the coral, sponges, and sea whips that you saw, what was most common?
    A. We saw roughly 70,000 structure-forming invertebrates (animals without an internal skeleton made of bone). Of these, about 55% of them consisted of sponges (predominantly from two occasions when we put the camera in the water) and 40% were sea whips. Only 2% (< 1500 individuals) of the total invertebrates observed were corals.

    Q. How big were the corals, sponges, and sea whips that you saw?
    A. Corals: Densities and heights of corals were generally highest in Pribilof Canyon and to the west of Pribilof Canyon along the slope. Corals taller than several inches are uncommon in the Bering Sea, including those found in Zhemchug and Pribilof canyons.

    Sponges: Densities and heights were highest surrounding Pribilof Canyon, north of Bering Canyon and in some locations in Zhemchug Canyon.

    Sea whips: Densities and heights were highest on the outer shelf between Pribilof and Zhemchug Canyon and in an area to the south of Pribilof Canyon.

    Q. Why is height and density important to know when studying corals?
    A. We study height and density as a way to measure potential vulnerability to human-induced and natural disturbance.

    Q. What did you learn about how species are using the coral as habitat?
    A. We saw evidence that rockfish species, in particular, used sponge and to a lesser extent coral habitat. We also saw juvenile king crabs associated with sponges and corals. However, grenadiers and several crab species, like Tanner crabs, were seen in the greatest numbers on bare, sandy bottom rather than in close proximity to corals or sponges. These results were consistent with other laboratory and field studies in the North Pacific Ocean.

    Q. Did you see evidence of fishing activity?
    A. Direct evidence of fishing (mostly trawl tracks, but also some lost trawl nets, crab pots, and longline gear) occurred at 32 (12.8%) of the sample sites.

    Q. Did you see any evidence of damaged coral, sponges, or sea whips?
    A. The proportion of observed damage to coral was 2.9% and sponge was 0.3%. About 9% of individual sea whips observed were classified as either being somehow damaged, dead, or lying horizontal on the seafloor.

    Q. Was this damage caused by fishing activity?
    A. In most cases, it was difficult to determine if the damage was human-induced (e.g., fishing or other activity) or natural (e.g., brittle star predation, ocean currents). There were very few places where we actually saw both clear evidence of fishing activity (e.g., trawl tracks or fishing gear) and damaged coral, sponges or sea whips. This occurred in just 3.2% of our camera tows (8 of 250).

    Q. So what can you conclude from this research? Would you recommend that areas of high coral, sponge, or sea whip density be protected?
    A. We conducted this research at the request of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. We expect to make a formal presentation to the Council in October 2015. The Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee will conduct a peer-review of our report before the October meeting. We anticipate that various Council committees will consider the information we provided and determine if they need any further information from us. If any management actions or alternatives are developed, the Council is the authoritative body that will initiate that.

    More on Bering Sea canyons and other information on NOAA Fisheries work to protect deep-sea corals

    2014 web story: Canyons, Corals and Sustainable Fishing in the Bering Sea
    Bering Sea Canyons, North Pacific Fishery Management Council
    Habitat Protections Enacted by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council
    Deep-Sea Coral Research and Technology Program Report to Congress 2014

    For more information please contact Marjorie Mooney-Seus,
    206-526-4348 (office), 774-392-4865 (cell)

    • Hi Glenn,

      As I acknowledge in the article, the Council’s deliberations have led to the collection of lots of valuable data on benthic invertebrate communities. It is our hope that these findings will lead to the implementation of appropriate protections for the Bering Sea Green Belt in the very near future given that the harmful effects of bottom trawling have been documented in these studies. Even though the portions of damaged seafloor discovered may seem small, they are part of an important and fragile ecosystem that we need to protect. I understand that that isn’t everyone’s opinion.

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