I’m in the Arctic in the waters of Svalbard, north of Norway, at 78º North Latitude during the time of year when the sun never sets. For a few days I’m a guest aboard Greenpeace’s ship Arctic Sunrise.
We’re concerned about damage to the seafloor by a recent influx of fishing trawlers into the high Arctic as the ocean warms, ice shrinks, and cod and other fish—and boats—move north. The issue: dragging heavy nets causes damage. Greenpeace has spear-headed an agreement with major fishing and seafood-selling companies to halt further expansion until a plan can be formulated and agreed to for protection of some large areas.
To compare an area hit with a trawl net to an undisturbed part of the seafloor, we send a remotely operated camera on a cable, down to 140 meters, about 450 feet. It goes off the back of the ship on a thick orange cable from a big, turning spool. It’s very loud back here with noise from the engine and steering mechanism. Ear-protectors help. I endure the noise to get a real-time view of the deep dark seafloor. First, using GPS, we get right on the track of one of the trawlers.
The deeper seafloor of the continental shelves and open ocean can look pretty barren. There is not enough light for plants, not even any kelp. And on the screen it looks barren. The monitor is a bit grainy, it’s not a super-detailed image. There is the usual phenomenon called “marine snow,” white-looking flecks eternally falling in the slow and timeless drift from the world of light and warmth. Mostly it’s gelatinous creatures that might well include salps, doliolids, siphonophores, and ctenophores, the cast-off gelatinous body-housing of certain creatures like larvaceans who every day make and then break the most delicate of shelters, and bits of tiny plankton that have died. There’s nothing quite like this on land.
I see shrimp; quite a few. And occasional sea-stars that are crimson and livid-looking. Occasional darting things that could be small fish or squid, though all singles; no schools. There’s a dogfish, which is a slinky little shark. And a couple of cod swim through the light. Good thing for them they weren’t right here a little while ago, when the net swept through.
Because we’re starting with an area that’s been trawled, I have no reference point. To me it looks a bit unkempt. I think I’m seeing things that look out of place and a bit disorderly. There are white things—I can’t tell if they’re hard or soft corals or even anemones. Maybe even sponges. But they look un-rooted and a bit scattered. Same with some of the stony cobbles that make up much of the seafloor. They look unsettled.
The camera crosses some unmistakable, long, drag marks in the sediment. These are where the net’s heavy planers, the “doors” that keep the net open, came plowing through. In those tracks, it’s all sandy looking. And at the end of one particular gouge is a small boulder that had gotten dragged a few yards by the force of the net.
But as I say, I’m not sure what it’s supposed to look like here. Tom, the radio and internet guy, is working the controls. “Wow,” he shouts in my ear, “this is like a moonscape here.” Where they haven’t trawled, he says, “It looks totally different.”
We go to one of those places, a few miles away. Biologists have flagged this area as having “high biodiversity”—a lot lives here. It’s much deeper—around twice as deep—which might be why the boats haven’t fished it.
I’m expecting more and taller things. But what I see instead look just like what I saw at the last stop. But with one difference. There, everything looked disturbed. Here, the opposite. The stones look settled and the white things—they look now like soft corals—are standing up from the seafloor. And sponges. And unmistakably now I see some hard branching corals.
The view is a bit monotonous, but also ever-changing. And it must be like this for thousands of square miles around us. And it must have been like this for thousands of years. More hard corals now. A couple of cod and red-colored fish. The main impression is of a seafloor compacted by time in which every square bit is somehow fuzzed and occupied with the thin film of life—corals, sponges, urchins, worms, clams—that ultimately helps support and gives rise to nets full of fish.
The captain says to me, “Like night and day.”
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Carl Safina’s recent bestselling book Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel is newly out in paperback. See Carl’s TED talk here. He is Stony Brook University’s Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity, and founder of The Safina Center.