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Alaska ocean explorers peruse Bering Sea canyons
Anchorage Daily News


September 10, 2007
Monday AM

Ocean explorers diving in and near gaping Bering Sea canyons last month found oases of coral and sponge sheltering fish and crabs, cradles of life below and sometimes in vast commercial trawling grounds.

It was scientists' first look into the Zhemchug Canyon, a crevice bigger than the Grand Canyon that some believe is a crucial rearing ground for species that spread throughout the continental shelf on Alaska's southwest.

Dropping about 2,000 feet in one-person submarines, they got mankind's first view of brilliant seascapes amid the muddy plains that slope toward and then into the canyons.

"It was absolutely startling to view some of these especially minute species at such proximity," said Juneau, Alaska-based marine ecologist and consultant Michelle Ridgway.

She dangled within inches of corals the shade of a burnt orange sunset near massive schools of magenta rockfish.

"In the submersibles we could look into openings in the sponges, observe crustaceans," she said.

The colors seemed out of place in the cold, gray Bering Sea.

"It's really amazing, that far north," Ridgway said.

Greenpeace organized the trip out of a desire to add to 370,000 square miles of coral beds already closed to fishing around the Aleutian Islands, and its findings have stirred a call to shut down the canyons and their edges. Most of Alaska's billion-dollar bottom-fish haul comes from the continental shelf away from the canyons, though government scientists and fishermen say some trawlers and longliners ply the area.

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council considered such protections last winter but decided no one knew enough about what lay in the canyon zones.

Zhemchug Canyon is the world's largest by volume, dropping 8,500 feet from the continental shelf. It is 180 miles northwest of the Pribilof Islands. The exploration also visited and found corals around Pribilof Canyon, on the opposite side of the islands.

"We weren't about to let things go that easily," said Greenpeace oceans specialist John Hocevar. He organized the expedition and Greenpeace provided its largest ship, the Esperanza, to carry the two submersibles and one remotely operated vehicle. The team he assembled, though, included not just advocates but various private, government and university scientists.

"At this point we have information that not only increases what is known about these canyons but makes a strong case for protecting them," Hocevar said. Everywhere in Alaska where corals are found, their importance as fish havens is undisputed, he said.

He'll make that case when the fishery council meets this winter.

But government scientists and commercial fishing groups say barring the trawl nets that sweep around and over the canyons won't occur without a thorough scientific vetting -- including more surveys and mapping -- if it is needed at all.

Robert Stone was among those impressed with the results of August's exploration but not moved to immediate action.

The fisheries biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration operated one of the submersibles and said the coral gardens included magnificent specimens but were patchy, as opposed to the swaths of sea life that have already won protection from crushing nets and gear around the Aleutian Islands.

Where the volcano-born Aleutian seabed is hard and has coral reefs measured in square kilometers, Stone said, the silty plains and shelves in the canyon zone are broken up by outcrops measured in acres.

That doesn't mean those outcrops aren't important, Stone said.

"To me, there's no question that corals, wherever we find them in Alaska, seem to be important fish habitat," he said.

But restricting fishing probably would require a more detailed survey and mapping, he believes.

"I guess the burning question is how important these canyons are in the contribution to the Bering Sea ecosystem," Stone said. "There weren't that many corals there, but one has to ask, was the limited amount that was there even more important for the ecosystem because it is limited?"

A Seattle consultant for the fishing industry, John Gauvin, said he's not surprised to see corals in the area, but would be surprised if fishermen have much effect on them. Fishermen know where many of the rocky outcrops are, and they avoid them, he said.

Gauvin has studied Bering Sea issues in his work as coordinator for the H&G Environmental Working Group, which represents boats that catch, head and gut sole and other fish. He was deeply involved in the negotiations over protection zones in the Aleutians, he said, and he believes the canyon zones are vastly different because of their mud expanses.

"It's not surprising that somebody goes out there and finds something, but what does it really mean?" he said. "It's not a scientific survey of the area."


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Ketchikan, Alaska