Greenpeace seeks to protect underwater canyons

San Francisco-based Jackie Dragon with the conservation group Greenpeace is one of several staff members trained to pilot a submersible, deep into two mysterious underwater canyons off the coast of Alaska.

"They are the largest underwater canyons in the world, larger than the Grand Canyon," Dragon said.

Greenpeace shot video of the expedition with high definition cameras and lights that revealed canyon walls covered with life and patches of deep sea sponges and coral no human eyes have seen before.

The submersible has robotic arms to pick up samples and lasers are used to determine the size of each exotic creature. The team found surprises right from the start.

"On my first dive we encountered a huge skate nursery, an area as large as a football field, covered in piles of leathery skate egg casings," Dragon said.

The canyons are in the Bering Sea, along the continental shelf off the coast of Alaska. The area is so full of fish and nutrients that it's known as "The Greenbelt".

This is one of the most productive ecosystems in the world, generating more than half the seafood sold in the United States.

If you eat fish sticks, fish fillet sandwiches, even imitation crab in sushi, odds are you're eating fish from the Bering Sea.

Greenpeace and other conservation groups believe many of those fish depend on the canyons for essential food and shelter at some time during their lifecycle.

"This is really important because if we want to continue to have fish sustaining us for the future, we need to make sure that we protect the habitat," Dragon said.

Conservationists have been working for a decade to get government protection for the canyons. That could mean a ban on fishing in some areas.

However, the fishing industry has consistently said there's not enough scientific evidence.

So Greenpeace is trying to get more data. This is actually their second expedition into the canyons. They're working with a biologist from UC Santa Barbara's Marine Science Institute. He's still analyzing the video, but says the canyons do have ecological importance.

"We found much higher abundances of corals in the canyons than had been found in most other deep water habitats that have been looked at. And we also found that the fish in the canyons were using the corals as habitat," UC Santa Barbara biologist Robert Miller said.

So how could all this affect you and your fish sticks? Well, at least one major retailer believes saving the canyons could be good for the long term future of commercial fisheries.

Safeway is one of the nation's largest seafood buyers. Safeway would not talk to ABC7 News on camera, but sent a letter to the Fishery Management Council urging them to investigate options to protect the canyons because as Safeway said there's too much at stake to take risks.

Commercial fishermen are watching closely. The majority of Alaska's fishing industry backs a group called the Marine Conservation Alliance and they've got their own expert from Washington State University analyzing the Greenpeace data.

The group's executive director told ABC7 News that the fishing industry is dedicated to keeping the Bering Sea healthy.

"We have a process and a scientific standard that has really been used as a model for the rest of the world," Marine Conservation Alliance executive director Merrick Burden said.

In the next few months, researchers for both Greenpeace and the fishing industry will submit their findings to government scientists.

The next move will be up to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which has ordered a review of the research and has the power to enact protections for the canyons.

If you'd like to see more of the underwater canyon video, Greenpeace has an interactive video online.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

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