Study maps biodiversity in Bering Sea canyon

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New research reveals biodiversity secrets deep beneath the surface of the Bering Sea.

Protection could benefit entire Bering Sea ecosystem

Staff Report

FRISCO — An undersea canyon in the Bering Sea is a biodiversity hotspot, scientists said in a new report that reinforces a push to establish protection for the area.

The study, conducted by the Marine Science Institute at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) and Greenpeace concluded that Pribilof canyon is the most significant location for deep sea corals and sponges along the entire eastern Bering Sea shelf.

With protections in place for coral and sponge habitat, Bering Sea fish and king crab populations could increase, according to conservation advocates. The study, published in Global Ecology and Conservation, also found that restricting bottom-contact fishing in Bering Sea canyons would not have significant negative impacts on the fishing industry.

“Despite comprising a very small percentage of the total study area, Pribilof canyon contains roughly half of the soft corals and sponge habitat in the entire region we examined,” said Robert Miller, a research biologist at UCSB and the paper’s lead author. “It’s clear that this remarkable habitat warrants protections to ensure the health of the surrounding ecosystem into the future.”

Pribilof Canyon, one of five major canyons carved into the Bering Sea slope, contains over 50 percent of the estimated high-quality deep sea coral habitat and 45 percent of sponge habitat, despite making up only 1.7 percent of the entire study area. The amount of quality coral and sponges varied in the other canyons, but overall they contained more than other parts of the highly productive “green belt” habitat along the continental slope.

The Bering Sea canyons, in particular Pribilof and Zhemchug, are the focus of continued conservation interest. The canyons are each larger than Grand Canyon National Park and play an important role in maintaining the extraordinary productivity of the Bering Sea.

To complete the study, researchers used a computer model to identify the best locations for coral and sponge habitat in the Bering Sea. The model incorporated data from bycatch records, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) surveys, and Greenpeace-led submersible expeditions, as well as physical oceanographic data such as temperature, slope and current speed.

“Importantly, this study found that Zhemchug and Pribilof canyons could be conserved without significantly impacting the commercial fishing industry,” said John Hocevar, Greenpeace oceans campaign director and marine biologist, who was the pilot of the submersible used to gather much of the data found in this study. “Bering Sea fish and king crab populations could actually increase with the protection of this invaluable coral and sponge habitat, meaning the fishing industry should be the first to support such efforts.”

Results from recent National Marine Fisheries Service camera drops along the Bering Sea green belt zone confirm that Pribilof canyon remains the largest identified hotspot for coral habitat, likely containing half of all coral in the Bering Sea. Looking at corals and sponges together, the NMFS research finds that Pribilof canyon stands out along the entire study area as the location of highest abundance as well as vulnerability to fishing gear.

Read the study: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351989415000633.

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