Exploring the Bering Sea
This first person account from Greenpeace expedition leader John Hocevar details what he and his team found in Zhemchug Canyon, one of the world’s largest, in Alaska’s Bering Sea. You can read his story below, and see videos of the expedition or read his archived blog on the Greenpeace website.
Beneath the stormy surface of Alaska’s Bering Sea lie several massive canyons, including Zhemchug, the world’s largest. Conservationists had sought to protect these spectacular features for years, but the billion-dollar Alaska fishing industry was able to prevent that from happening. Joined by a team of scientists, in 2007 Greenpeace took small one-person submarines and a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) to explore two of these canyons first hand.
The weather cooperated, and we were able to do 25 sub dives and 8 successful ROV dives, giving us well over 100 hours on the bottom. The mission was a serious one, but that didn’t stop me from giggling like a kid as I descended 2,000 feet into previously unexplored territory in my own personal submarine. On the way down, we were regularly accompanied by curious Dall’s porpoises and attacked by schools of squid, but it was the walls of the canyons where we found the greatest diversity of marine life.
We found about fourteen species of corals and an even greater diversity of sponges, including at least one that is new to science. We collected dozens of specimens, several of which may be new species as well. This is not surprising, given how little is known about these canyons. Even this expedition has just barely scratched the surface when it comes to truly understanding the canyons.
Some of what we found was beautiful and exotic. It was a real treat to watch a giant octopus walk across the seafloor, to see tiny snail fish larva hatch from the eggs that had been deposited in a sponge, and to visit places never before seen by human eyes.
And some things were not so beautiful. We all knew, intellectually, that much of the Bering Sea has been heavily trawled. Still, I don't think any of us were prepared for how widespread the damage is in these deep, remote areas. We saw trawler tracks on most of our dives, and sometimes it seemed as if the tracks were everywhere. On one of my dives, I passed through a large area where nearly every coral I saw was broken or knocked over.
Now it is time for us to take this information to the scientists and policy makers at NOAA Fisheries and the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. Based on our findings here, it is clear that continuing to allow trawl gear to impact the seafloor in the canyons is not an option. In order to protect the corals and sponges that provide habitat for fish and crab, and in order to protect the yet to be discovered deep sea life found in the depths of these canyons, we need to act now.
Of course, it's not going to be that simple. While some fishermen are clearly committed to science-based solutions to ensure that critical habitats are protected and fisheries are managed sustainably, others will fight us tooth and nail. We have truth on our side, though, and truth, when backed up by determination, will win in the end.