Looming human impact threaten our deep-sea communities – Live deep-sea ROPOS dives at the Museum – Part 4

Some of the corals observed during the ROPOS dives are believed to be hundreds of years old. Unlike many true corals that form reefs in tropical regions over time, cold water corals simply grow bigger and bigger with age. As a result, when coral forests are destroyed by human activities such as trawling, one can expect just as long a period of time before these “forests” are reestablished. At one point in time, may be a hundred years ago, significant portions of our once productive fishing banks were probably covered by these coral forests. We now suspect that some species of fish need these habitats for certain stages of their life cycle. This may explain why some species are not recovering from overfishing as fast as we anticipated; we not only significantly reduced their stocks with our large commercial trawling gear but also removed a critical habitat they need to thrive.

An unidentified gorgonian coral, possibly a species of Acanthogorgia, surrounded by multitudes of sponges, other smaller corals and anemones. That gorgonian coral was not sampled and so may remain a mystery. This is one example of the difficult choices that must be made when balancing various science program objectives. (Flemish Cap Site 6)

An unidentified gorgonian coral, possibly a species of Acanthogorgia, surrounded by multitudes of sponges, other smaller corals and anemones. That gorgonian coral was not sampled and so may remain a mystery. This is one example of the difficult choices that must be made when balancing various science program objectives. (Flemish Cap Site 6) © DFO/ROPOS

The issue of human impact is particularly relevant here. While, for the time being, one can hope that these rich bottom communities will not be affected by deep-water trawling, we know that the reduction in fish stocks on continental shelves is pressuring the industry to explore deeper waters.

But probably a more imminent threat to these fragile communities is deep-water drilling for oil exploration. One would think that recent challenges in the Gulf of Mexico will have thought us a thing or two about our inability to deal with containment of oil spills and catastrophic deep-water well blowups. Unfortunately, oil exploration in Orphan Basin, just to the west of Orphan Knoll, is now a reality. There, water depth is 2600 metres, about 1000 m deeper than in the Gulf of Mexico. Many visitors brought up this subject and wondered if there a price we should not be willing to pay simply for the sake of more oil? I wonder too…

If you want to find out more about this scientific cruise, you can visit the Hudson 029 2010 Cruise blog and also look at some of their very impressive hi-resolution photos.

About Jean-Marc Gagnon

Curator, Invertebrate Section, Canadian Museum of Nature. Conservateur, Division des invertébrés, Musée canadien de la nature. President, Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (2010-2012) (www.spnhc.org)
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