Guest: Peering into the depths of the Bering Sea canyons, it’s clear that protection is needed
Our oceans are in crisis even as we soak up their splendor on vacation, recreate in their waters and eat their fish. We must change course; we must act now, write guest columnists
Special to The Times
OUR oceans are vital to our very existence. By producing oxygen, feeding millions and shaping our climate and weather patterns, they are quite literally our life-support system.
Yet, our oceans are in crisis.
For too long, we have treated them as disconnected from our lives on land. We soak up their splendor on vacation, recreate in their waters and eat their fish, while ignoring the long-term damage we have done to their health through industrial fishing and polluting. We must change course now, not just for the future of our oceans, but also for the future of humankind.
Greenpeace, Mission Blue (Sylvia Earle Alliance) and Marine Conservation Institute have announced the 2020 Vision — a campaign to protect 20 percent of U.S. ocean waters by 2020. We are calling on companies with the power to create real change to embrace this bold vision. We should begin by restoring balance to the Bering Sea, the vast Alaskan waters where America’s underwater grand canyons await protection.
The 2020 Vision was launched last month in Seattle for a reason: Seafood is at the heart of the city’s identity. Yet, the oceans face an imminent threat from the modern seafood industry. Fish are wildlife first, but they generate substantial profit.
In recent decades, the world’s oceans have become over-industrialized. Fish have been extracted and habitat destroyed at an entirely unsustainable pace. If we don’t act now, scientists agree we are on a trajectory toward major collapse in many of the world’s fisheries.
Seattle and the U.S. can play a critical role in reversing this, starting by protecting our most treasured places in the sea. We are calling on people and businesses around the world that buy and sell fish, or simply love our oceans, to support this 2020 Vision at beringseacanyons.org.
For more than a decade, people have worked to protect the largest underwater canyons in the world, the Bering Sea canyons in Alaska, a Mission Blue Hope Spot. Pribilof Canyon is 6,000 feet deep and 30 miles wide, and the vaster Zhemchug Canyon is 9,000 feet deep and 60 miles wide. Wider and deeper than Grand Canyon National Park, these unique canyons support a rich marine ecosystem — home to at least 450 species of fish, crustaceans and mollusks, along with 80 percent of the U.S. seabird population and 25 species of marine mammals, though many continue to witness sharp population declines.
Despite their significance, the canyons remain unprotected and vulnerable to lasting habitat damage from massive trawl fishing ships and harmful gear. A number of marine mammal species are already in sharp decline.
Half of all U.S.-caught seafood comes from the Bering Sea. We must maintain healthy ecosystems to sustain these valuable fisheries into the future and help protect one of our oceans’ unique wild places.
And industry must embrace a balanced approach. Setting aside a small percentage of the ecologically sensitive Green Belt zone — a several-hundred-mile stretch along the highly productive continental shelf break — would not only protect canyon habitat and increase ecosystem resilience, it would allow for the harvesting of healthier marine life beyond conservation boundaries.
Protecting the Bering Sea canyons would help ensure that the area continues to feed Americans for generations to come. This is common sense.
The seafood industry, and the supermarkets that sell ocean wildlife — such as Costco, Target and Albertsons — will be critical in the fight to protect the oceans in the long term. A Seattle billboard campaign launched last month urges them to lead. As the customers for the fishing industry, they can influence how we manage ocean resources.
Currently, less than 3 percent of the ocean is strongly protected globally. If companies are going to profit from our oceans, deplete our shared natural resources and destroy fragile habitat in the process, they must be held accountable to restore balance. Supermarkets that sell seafood can show they are serious about sustainability by signing onto our 2020 Vision and refusing to sell ocean wildlife caught in the canyons.
When decision-makers finally take action to create a network of protected areas — including no-take reserves and areas that are fished with gear that does not damage bottom habitat — we will all be assured that fishing is not destroying this vital area.
Last year, President Obama created the largest marine reserve in the world, expanding the existing Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument from 83,000 square miles to 490,000 square miles. All commercial fishing and mineral extraction will now be prohibited in this national monument — a cause for hope. We must continue to protect additional habitats across American waters. Nearly 600 scientists recently called on the president to do just that. It is our hope that he sets aside places like Alaska’s grand undersea canyons.
National parks have been a part of our national identity for 100 years — why wouldn’t we work equally hard to preserve our most special places in the oceans? These are locations we have barely started to explore, where species are still waiting to be discovered. What if we had destroyed Yosemite or Mount Rainier before ever setting foot on them?
Retailers can help protect these places now. We will continue to ask the seafood industry to commit to the 2020 Vision for the oceans, and to stop selling seafood that contributes to the destruction of the Bering Sea canyons. Together, we can adopt a more balanced approach, so the oceans can survive into the future and we can leave a functioning planet to those who come after us.
Sylvia Earle is a marine biologist and founder of Mission Blue (Sylvia Earle Alliance). Lance Morgan is a marine biologist and president of the Seattle-based Marine Conservation Institute. Annie Leonard, of Seattle, is executive director of Greenpeace USA.