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Coldwater coral find in Arctic sea prompts renewed calls for more analysis before oil drilling starts

Greenpeace biologist John Hocevar shows a piece of raspberry coral from the seafloor of the Chukchi Sea near a proposed Shell drill site. To date, no form of corals are know to exist in the area. The Greenpeace ship Esperanza is on an Arctic expedition to study unexplored ocean habitats threatened by offshore oil drilling, as well as industrial fishing fleets. Photo courtesy Jiri Rezac/Greenpeace.

Greenpeace biologists say they’ve found previously unknown coral species near planned Shell Oil drilling site

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Oil companies and the Obama administration are rushing to start Arctic Ocean oil drilling despite warnings from scientists that not enough is known about the region’s ecology to be able to thoroughly evaluate potential impacts.

The discovery of coldwater corals on the floor of the Chukchi Sea lends support to the idea that there are still to many unknowns to proceed with risky drilling operations.

Greenpeace submarine researchers recently collected specimens of a sea raspberry coral (Gersemia rubiformis) from an area where Shell plans to drill in the coming weeks.

Following the discovery, conservation groups called on the U.S. Department of the Interior to fully analyze the potential damage Shell’s Arctic drilling could have on those cold-water corals in the Chukchi Sea.

“Cold-water corals like those found at Shell’s proposed drill site play a significant role in ocean ecosystems and are particularly vulnerable to disturbance,” said Greenpeace Oceans Campaign director John Hocevar. “Coral impacted by industrial drilling could take decades — even centuries — to recover. We need a more complete understanding of this delicate ecosystem before we allow an oil company that has proven itself again and again to be reckless and ill-prepared to drill there.”

According to the conservation groups’ letter to Interior, drilling in the Chukchi may hurt not just the corals but the entire marine ecosystem where the corals live.

As keystone species, cold-water corals may play an integral role in maintaining the structure and diversity of an ecosystem by providing a three-dimensional habitat on the often-barren seafloor — a habitat that attracts and protects fish and other species. For example, Gersemia provides shelter for juvenile basket stars, one of the most important species on the Chukchi seafloor.

“Before letting Shell drill in the fragile Arctic, we ought to at least fully understand the risks to wildlife, including these corals,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director of the Center for Biological Diversity. “If the Department of the Interior can overlook these keystone corals, who knows what else is down there that deserves independent analysis. This foolhardy rush to drill will leave behind a path of destruction that can’t even be measured.”

The letter from the Center and Greenpeace states, in part:

“Given the significance of corals such as Gersemia rubiformis to the Chukchi Sea ecosystem, as well as the corals’ extreme vulnerability to disturbance, Interior must consider the impacts of Shell’s actions on these corals before allowing Shell to proceed with its Chukchi Sea exploration activities. Shell should not be permitted to undertake any activities in the Chukchi Sea until Interior has undertaken supplemental analysis under NEPA.”

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