The Next Conservation Frontier

Physalia Seamount, Coral Canyons, Seamounts, Octopus, baby octopus, marine protected area, climate change, NOAA
orange coral fan, Nygren Canyon, NOAA, coral canyons, seamountsCoral Canyons and Seamounts, ancient cold-water coral gardens, NOAA, bubblegum coral, Heezen Canyonlaminarian kelp, cashes ledge, Brian Skerry
July 2016
By:
Amanda Yanchury, Ocean Communications Associate, Conservation Law Foundation
Blue Parks for our Oceans

Canyons more massive than the Grand Canyon. Mountains that rival the Rockies in size. You’d think that formations of this stature would be well-known, like New England’s White Mountains, yet they are largely untouched and completely hidden from view: I’m talking about the New England Canyons and Seamounts, ancient canyons and mountains located underwater about 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.

Five massive undersea canyons (named Oceanographer, Gilbert, Lydonia, Nygren, and Heezen) and four seamounts (named Bear, Physalia, Mytilus, and Retriever), some with peaks rising more than 7,000 feet above the ocean floor, exist where the continental shelf drops into the pitch-black abyss of the deep Atlantic Ocean. Such grand landscapes have been preserved across our nation for over a century, yet the era of ‘Blue Parks’ – preserving those most important and dynamic places in our oceans – is just beginning.

These mysterious ocean places in New England continue to reveal their incredible diversity, and amazingly, new marine species are uncovered during every expedition. Already, more than 320 marine species have been identified in the canyons and another 630 within the seamounts!

NOAA’s Okeanos Explorer Program has made a series of trips out to the canyons and seamounts, and each time, new discoveries are made that contribute to our scientific understanding of a highly complex ocean.

Coldwater Coral

When most people think of coral, they imagine tropical coral in warm-water areas. But corals can also thrive in deep, coldwater areas, like they do within the New England Canyons and Seamounts. Many of these coral formations take centuries to grow, and some are the size of small trees!

The coral formations and the unique geography of the Canyons and Seamounts provide the ideal conditions for a wealth of marine life to thrive. Ocean currents driven by these underwater features create a concentration of plankton, squid, and forage fish that in turn attract endangered whales and other migratory species as they seek bountiful food sources.

Protecting the Habitats and Ecosystems from Human Threats

The waters above the corals and canyon ridges teem with diverse marine life, too. From tuna, billfish, and sharks to the Atlantic puffins that winter on the surface, the Canyons and Seamounts are full of important marine species who are able to thrive in these excellent conditions.

From the extreme depths of the seafloor along the canyons, to beyond the highest peak all the way to the surface, the Canyons and Seamounts need full protection for the vast array of unique marine life that call these places home.

Under threat from human impacts like increased shipping activities, industrialization, and development efforts like cabling, sand and gravel mining, and offshore oil drilling, permanent protection for these critical ocean areas is needed now more than ever before. Commercial fishing, while small in scale, further threatens the ancient coral formations, which are highly sensitive to human disturbances, and can take centuries to rebuild – if they can rebuild at all.

While the effects of climate change on our world’s ocean remains unclear, there is a growing consensus that preserving intact habitat areas rich in biodiversity is one of the best ways we can make our oceans more resilient to change. It is more important than ever to set aside marine areas that are free from human impacts to learn more about the ocean and how we can best respond to these changes.

Preserving an Ocean Legacy

In New England, the ocean has, and always will play a major role in our region’s cultural heritage. It is the backbone of many of our most lasting traditions, foods, and recreational activities. A healthy ocean is not only important to these traditions, but it is also a major driver of the local and regional economy. Ocean resources support more than 230,000 jobs and $16 billion in economic activity in New England coastal states. Most of this economic activity comes from ocean tourism and recreation by tourists and coastal residents, with some also coming from direct commercial activity on the water and shoreside support.

Ensuring a healthy ocean in New England is important for this entire ecosystem – humans included! Healthy ocean habitats provide reliable feeding grounds for whales, dolphins, and seabirds. And when these populations thrive, our region’s tourism-driven economy thrives too.

Right now, we have the opportunity to permanently protect special places that contribute to sustaining a healthy ocean – but we must act immediately. President Obama has signaled his willingness to establish more marine protections through the end of his presidential term, and we believe that New England is the best place to start.

There are hundreds of thousands of miles permanently protected in four Marine National Monuments in the Pacific Ocean ­– but as of today there are zero miles of similarly protected areas in the Atlantic. The New England Canyons and Seamounts make up less than 2 percent of New England waters but they have the potential to make a huge impact for conservation, the economy, and science in the years to come.

Please join us to save these vital, important ocean treasures before it’s too late. 

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