Seamount fish

A deepsea ‘oasis’ is slated to become Canada’s biggest protected area

An area four times the size of Vancouver Island is home to smoking vents, volcanic islands just under the water and a staggering abundance of life

One morning in 1984, a pair of ships bobbed together in the swell 250 kilometres off the coast of Vancouver Island. The scientists aboard American research vessels Wacoma and Atlantis were about to make history.

Slowly and deliberately, two scientists and a pilot were lowered into the water in a submersible about the size of a shipping container. 

The sub, Alvin, was there to confirm what a 1982 bottom-dredging expedition had accidentally stumbled across: deep down, chimneys were spewing volcanic heat and gases into the ocean. Scientists had discovered the first deepsea vents in the world seven years prior, along the Galápagos Rift, inspiring a flurry of research and public interest into what became one of the greatest biological discoveries of the 20th century. Alvin had been there, too. 

Alvin had recovered hydrogen bombs and would later dive on the wreck of the Titanic, but many of its most valuable contributions have been to science. This day would be one of the latter.

Alvin is prepared for launch off the deck of Atlantis. Photo: Taollan82 via Wikipedia

It took Alvin two hours to descend the 2,200 metres to the sea floor. 

“It’s just a long way down,” says chemical oceanographer Marvin Lilley, who was aboard the Wacoma that day. The discovery was startling: six-storey towers looming over the ridge, two kilometres down, one after another after another.

“In my experience, it’s the most active 15 kilometres anywhere,” Lilley says. 

That activity fuels an alien ecosystem. The gas emanating from the sea floor is rich in sulphides, which can only be converted to food by extremely specialized organisms. Creatures that host these microbes in their gut dart in and out of the superheated water in a dance with death, gathering enough of the life-giving gas to feed their microbes without being cooked alive. A dozen species would eventually be discovered there that exist nowhere else on the planet, even at other vent sites — including the record-holder for the upper temperature limit for life, 121 degrees C.

On a normal patch of sea floor you could find a handful of worms or brittle stars in a square metre. A plot of the same size at what became known as the “Endeavour vent field” could hold up to half a million animals. The sheer volume of creatures is comparable to what would be found in a tropical rainforest. 

This explosion of life exists far below where any light can reach. Hydrothermal vents are the only known ecosystems on the planet that exist completely independent of the sunlight that directly or indirectly feeds every other living thing.

Endeavour hydrothermal vent summit. Photo: CSSF/ Ocean Networks Canada

The alien landscape, with its huge spires crawling with life, was “mind-blowing,” says Kim Juniper, one of the pioneers of hot vent science. “Nothing had ever been seen like that anywhere in the world.” 

Juniper is now chief scientist for Ocean Networks Canada, which has established an extensive network of underwater observatories around the vent fields.

But it wasn’t long after that first discovery that the destruction began. By 1997, when Canada passed the Oceans Act, the Endeavour field was besieged by high-tech plundering in the name of science.

“We were at the point there where people were going down with chainsaws on the front ends of submersibles to slice off large pieces of these chimneys,” Juniper says. “It was a bit like the Wild West.” 

That damage was only a shadow of a much more destructive force that threatens the ocean floor. Still unproven and with shaky financial justifications, deepsea mining has the potential to lay waste to entire vent systems in search of the valuable metals that can concentrate there.

Juniper and his colleagues pleaded the case for setting strict rules for what could and couldn’t be done at Endeavour.

In 2001, the federal government announced it would protect this “Underwater Yellowstone,” as the Globe and Mail described it, and two years later, the Endeavour Hydrothermal Vents became Canada’s first Marine Protected Area. It protects 97 square kilometres of sea floor and the water column above it. 

Now, there’s a good chance the government will increase that 97 square kilometres by a factor of nearly 1500 times. The 139,700 square kilometre area would make up 2.43 per cent of Canada’s ocean territory, adding significant progress to meeting Canada’s Aichi commitments to protect 10 per cent of the ocean by 2020. 

It would protect the vents as well as an enormous swath of ocean on all sides of it from bottom-contact fishing, deepsea mining, dumping and more growing threats, far from the public eye — and would in the process create an oasis for the weird, the unique and the imperilled creatures of the sea floor. 

Black smoker activity in Endeavour vent field. Photo: Ocean Networks Canada

Octopus at Davidson seamount. Photo: Ocean Exploration Trust / Northeast Pacific Seamount Partners

An ‘oasis’ in the deep

The “Offshore Pacific Area of Interest” is four and a half times the size of Vancouver Island, the nearest point of land, and extends all the way to the outer edge of Canadian jurisdiction. It would be the biggest protected area of any kind in Canada, and nearly triple the total size of all current marine protected areas.

It would protect against just about anything that affects the ocean floor, including mining, bottom-contact fishing, oil and gas exploration and dumping. It would not protect against fishing higher up in the water column.

The proposal has been in the works since 2017, and could be officially designated by late 2020. It will likely be co-governed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and coastal First Nations, though those groups are still negotiating the exact nature of that relationship.

The Offshore Pacific includes the Endeavour vent field, but it also holds many more undersea treasures — in particular, seamounts.

“If you think about a seamount as an offshore volcanic island that just happens to be slightly underwater, you’ve wrapped your head around what a seamount is,” says Cherisse Du Preez, a marine biologist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Hydrothermal Vents MPA

The location of the proposed “Offshore Pacific Area of Interest” marine protected area off the coast of Vancouver Island. Map: Carol Linnitt / The Narwhal

Eighty-seven per cent of Canada’s seamounts fall within the area of interest. 

“Although we have a lot of them, it is incredibly rare in this world to have stewardship over this amount of ecologically and biologically significant ecosystems,” says Du Preez, who studied under Juniper, and now finds herself at the same table as her mentor as the regulations for the protected area are worked out.

Du Preez speaks about the seamounts and vent systems with barely contained excitement. It’s clear that, for her, these are not remote, cold physical features on a map; they’re living miracles that Canada has a chance to protect.

“We’re out there and we’re looking, and we’re making discoveries that have global significance,” she says. The designation of a marine protected area would require that Fisheries and Oceans Canada invest in monitoring and research programs, which would lead to a better understanding of the environment there.

“There are probably many species we’ve never discovered out there,” says Jay Ritchlin, director of the western region for the David Suzuki Foundation. That organization, along with several other conservation groups, has branded the area the “Deepsea Oasis” in recognition of its rarity among the abyssal plain.

Coral and rockfish at SGaan Kinglas Bowie seamount. Photo: Ocean Exploration Trust / Northeast Pacific Seamount Partners

The mysterious plain of the deep sea is covered in thick mud, the result of eons of slow deposition of dead things and silt. It doesn’t encourage much known life. But seamounts’ steep-sided, rocky slopes ascend for thousands of metres from the muddy bottom, providing rare anchor points for bottom-dwelling animals like corals and sea anemones that need something hard to hang onto. Those in turn provide habitat for mobile creatures like crabs and octopus — and, “it’s a huge snowball from there,” Du Preez says.

Sharks and other oceangoing fish are able to find prey there. Jellies, turtles and whales join the party. What would otherwise be a desolate muddy landscape becomes an oasis of life, far offshore. 

The shape of the seamounts is important as well. It works as a ramp, guiding the currents upward. That cold, nutrient-rich water swirls up to meet the sunlight and powers another bloom of life — from microscopic algae all the way up to whales and birds — in a giant whirlpool around the seamount. 

Wherever there aren’t seamounts or deepsea vents, the muddy plain stretches on, featureless and dark. But here and there, with no rhyme nor reason, there’s a crush of activity. A dead whale has dropped to the sea floor, and a bizarre assortment of creatures take advantage of the feast from above. These bonanzas attract crabs, hagfish, ancient sharks and many other scavengers that will slowly break the carcass down to a skeleton. Then they’ll eat the skeleton. 

“You can’t plan for them, and you can’t necessarily draw a marine protected area around them,” says Du Preez. But protecting a big area ensures that some of these hubs of activity will be protected as well. “So we know that we’re catching a lot of them in this area of interest, too.” 

Co-governance or co-opting?

Fisheries and Oceans Canada brought their proposal for the area to the Haida, Nuu-Chah-Nulth, Quatsino and Pacheedaht First Nations in 2016. That, explains Nuu-Chah-Nulth fisheries manager Eric Angel, was their first mistake. 

“We would much rather be involved in the conversations at the very start — not when they’re saying, ‘this is what we want to protect,’ ” he says. “We have concerns about what’s happening in the ocean much closer to shore, and those aren’t being addressed.”

The First Nations responded with a proposal to co-govern the area, making decisions as full partners — a notion he says Fisheries and Oceans Canada seems willing to entertain but has so far been unwilling to put in writing. The government “wanted it vague,” he says. 

Statements from ministers and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promising “nation-to-nation relationships” and “reconciliation” don’t amount to much, Angel argues, when the actual process of dealing with the government has proven to be much more rigid. 

Despite the procedural letdowns of the process and the mismatched priorities, Angel says the goals of the marine protected area align with those of the coastal First Nations. Parts of the Offshore Pacific area are part of their respective traditional territories, as places where whaling boats would have hunted far offshore. 

Angel says working on this proposal has provided a catalyst for the First Nations to learn how to work together and has spurred new partnerships. They’re now building their own “oceans dialogue forum” between coastal First Nations to discuss pressing issues that bridge their territories.

The process is also helping to teach a new generation of homegrown researchers. Two young Nuu-Chah-Nulth student scientists, Joshua Watts and Aline Carrier, will be aboard the Tully, a Fisheries and Oceans research vessel, this summer, building relationships with government scientists and conducting their own fieldwork. 

“Each generation you make a little bit of progress and you leave it for the next generation,” Angel says. 

A shield and a buffer

The marine protected area designation would protect both the seamounts and the deepsea vents to some extent. Bottom-contact fishing would be ruled out. Oil and gas exploration, which is not of much interest in the area anyway, would also be prohibited. Scientific research would require permits and specific research plans. Deepsea mining, the aforementioned new technology with the potential to Fern Gully entire vent fields, will be preemptively banned in the area.

“There’s not a ton of industrial activity out there at the moment, which is good,” says Ross Jameson, ocean conservation manager at the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. “It’s an opportunity to get all marine users and all interested parties on board.” 

ROV Hercules exploring sponge colony at Explorer seamount. Research in the marine protected area would require permits. Photo: Ocean Exploration Trust / Northeast Pacific Seamount Partners

Just 94 vessels reported fishing for groundfish in the area of interest between 2007 and 2016, according to a slide deck prepared by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. That fishing generated an average of under $150,000 per year in total. The fishing industry argues that’s an underestimate but more current numbers are not publicly available due to privacy concerns.

Tuna, meanwhile, was a much larger fishery in the area. As many as 220 ships fished for tuna in the area of interest over a decade. That fishery, worth up to $2.9 million year on average, and making up about a fifth of Canada’s tuna catch, would be allowed to continue under the new rules since tuna are mostly caught closer to the surface.

Representatives of the bottom-contact fishing industry have expressed opposition to some restrictions in the area.

But there is only so much the government can actually protect against. Some limits are natural, and others jurisdictional. 

For example, Canada is not allowed to tell ships they can’t pass through its marine protected areas. Normal ship traffic — and its associated noise, risk of ship strikes, discharge of bilge water and other pollution — will be allowed just like everywhere else. 

Deck team prepares ROV Odysseus for deployment. Photo: Ocean Networks Canada

The core of the protected area as it stands now will also only cover an area of water well below the surface in most areas. Where the seamounts rise above the bottom, the protection will rise as well. Higher up in the water, an “adaptive management zone” will take over, which has significantly fewer protections.

“We’re really pushing back that they have an obligation to protect the entire water column, from sea floor to surface,” Jameson says. “So that’s one battle that we’re continuing to wage.”

The protected area used to overlap with an operations area used for exercises and testing by the Royal Canadian Navy. That was changed in later versions, but the two areas will still be side-by-side, and noise pollution does not respect lines on a map.

Short-term stressors like ship traffic and fishing are one facet of the risks facing the area. Meanwhile, climate change is mutating offshore ecosystems. 

“We’ve been seeing tropical animals inside Canadian waters for the first time,” Du Preez says. Species like bottlenose dolphins and thresher sharks, which should be found off Mexico or maybe California — have been found following warmer water north in the same process that’s happening all over the planet. 

Big protected areas, like the Offshore Pacific, create havens for wildlife where they aren’t put under additional stress from humans. They can act as nurseries, helping fish populations expand free from fishing impacts. They can also act as buffers against climate change and ocean acidification. But without action on climate change, they can only do so much.

“They’re not the only solution, and they’re not a magic bullet,” says Ritchlin, of the David Suzuki Foundation. “A huge protected area like this is fabulous but it’s not the end of the story.”

Updated at 1:30 p.m. on July 1, 2019: The article originally attributed quotes from chemical oceanographer Dr. Marvin Lilley to chemical oceanographer Dr. John Lupton. 

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