In June this year, the Living Oceans Society’s “Finding Coral” expedition set out from Vancouver, Canada on a two week cruise to the North Coast to document British Columbia’s (BC) deepwater corals. The chartered research vessel Cape Flattery carried Living Oceans Society’s (LOS) staff from their base in Sointula, along with invited marine scientists and technical support people.

The investigators used two deep-diving manned submersibles capable of carrying observers as deep as 500m (1,640ft). The free-ranging submersibles were equipped with manipulator arms, lights and cameras, which allowed their pilots to observe, document and collect samples of what they found. Six different submersible pilots, including Jennifer Lash, Executive Director of LOS, dove at seven locations in Queen Charlotte Sound, Hecate Strait, Haida Gwaii and the northern mainland coast. They documented at least sixteen species of corals ranging from solitary orange true corals less than 3cm (1.2”) in diameter, to the spectacular red tree corals (Primnoa), whose branching colonies can reach a height of over 2m (6ft 7”).

The Corals

BC’s deepwater corals are fascinating and strikingly beautiful. They live attached to rocky formations at depths of hundreds of metres. Although they may attach to small cobbles or to large bedrock outcrops, they are not found on sandy or silty ocean beds. Because their habitat is so difficult for observers to reach, local corals are hard to study and their biology is poorly known.

Deepwater corals are related to, but different from, the much better studied tropical reef-forming corals. All of them belong to the phylum that includes jellyfish and sea anemones, and all have tentacles with stinging cells for collecting food. Many species of both groups are colonial; tiny individual polyps share a common rigid skeleton.

Unlike the tropical corals, our deepwater corals do not form massive stony reefs, but some kinds occur in large groups referred to as forests or meadows. Like the tropical corals, the larger deepwater coral colonies create complex habitats that are utilized by many other species, including fishes, brittle stars, crabs, shrimps and many other kinds of invertebrates. The diverse communities associated with coral forests are unique to this habitat and are significant elements of deepwater ecosystems. Large coral colonies grow very slowly, and the larger ones may be a century or more old.

Threats To Corals

Worldwide it appears that damage by fishing gear is the principal threat to deepwater corals. The consensus of fisheries’ scientists is that otter trawls dragged along the bottom for flatfish, rockfish and other bottom-dwellers are among the most damaging.

Most of what is known about coral distribution in BC is based on observations of the incidental catch or bycatch by bottom trawls. Since 1996 all groundfish trawlers in BC have been required to hire onboard observers who record all the target catch as well as the unintended bycatch of corals, sponges and other non-target species in every tow of the net.

In 2004, LOS researcher Jeff Ardron analyzed trawl observer reports from 1996 through 2002. Ardron’s analysis showed that, in the six year period, trawlers took at least 295 tons of deepwater corals and sponges in the process of harvesting 234,000 tons of the fish species they were seeking.

In a paper published by Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in 2006, Ardron and DFO scientist Glen Jamieson showed that 95% of the catch of corals and sponges was taken in 12 areas which together comprise about 7.5% of BC’s continental shelf and slope. Some of these areas were preferred fishing grounds for the trawl fleet; together, these areas of high bycatch accounted for 24% of all trawl tows and 30% of their total catch during the period of the study. Ardron and Jamieson recommended that the 12 areas be considered for protected status for conservation of coral and sponge habitats.

Attempts At Coral Protection Are Not New

In 2000, DFO proposed voluntary trawling closures of four areas of critical habitat for reef-forming glass sponges, which, like corals, form complex deepwater habitat that supports a unique community. The closed areas were made mandatory through fishery regulations in 2002. These areas accounted for about one third of the combined coral and sponge bycatch, but they are not adequate to eliminate most of the impact on corals.

DFO acknowledges the need for more protection for coral and has drafted a policy to protect more areas. However, detailed documentation of the locations in need of protection is currently a missing link in the process. DFO is now beginning to define ecologically and biologically significant areas on the North Coast of BC that merit special management but has made little further progress on documenting the distribution of deepwater corals.

The Living Oceans Society expedition to collect further information about the corals was an attempt to move the process along and to raise public awareness.

BC Marine Protected Areas

Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are areas of ocean designated and managed for the protection of special features. They are used increasingly by management agencies around the world for marine conservation.

Canada currently holds about 9,000 sq. kms (3,475sq. miles) under some type of protection on the west coast; this amounts to just under 2% of Canada’s Pacific waters. Although, in the 1993 UN Convention on Biodiversity, Canada committed to protecting 10-30% of federal waters in an MPA network by 2012, currently less than 0.5% of Canadian federal waters on both coasts are protected. For comparison, the US now has 5% of its waters in federal MPAs and Australia protects 10%.

In BC, DFO has designated all waters of the continental shelf and slope from northern Vancouver Island to the Alaska border as a priority area for marine planning. DFO calls the area the Pacific North Coast Intergrated Management Area (PNCIMA). The strategy is to engage all stakeholders and interests (including First Nations, government, fishermen and environmental groups) in developing an ecosystem-based management plan for the area. The public process began last March with a two-day meeting in Richmond attended by 300 people. Although the PNCIMA area has been designated a priority region in DFO’s Oceans Action Plan since 2004, federal funding to support the project is uncertain. As a new project in a federal department whose budget is already inadequate, PNCIMA’s future seems precarious.


The creation of MPAs that prohibit fishing is likely to translate into lower catches, at least in the short term. But if protected areas are well designed, catch may not decline by much. If MPAs are part of a comprehensive plan that includes good fishery and habitat management outside of the MPAs, fish catches may actually increase in the long run.

The BC Fishermen’s Union (UFAWU – CAW) has passed a policy resolution in support of MPAs for conservation purposes. The union’s support is conditional on a MPA process that incorporates the knowledge of commercial fishermen and First Nations; is based on sound science and clear goals; and provides transition assistance for affected commercial fishermen.

The fact is trawlers are not actually interested in catching coral. Much of the coral habitat is on rough rocky bottom that they try to avoid. The uneven bottom can damage trawl gear, and coral entangled in the net is very difficult to remove.

Bruce Turris is Executive Manager of the Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Society, representing the groundfish trawl industry. According to Turris, the trawlers do not oppose MPAs to protect coral aggregations and other sensitive bottom habitats. He points out that it was the trawl industry that initially located the glass sponge reefs, and worked with DFO to formalize closures to the area. Later they voluntarily enlarged the sponge closure areas in the Hecate Strait.

What is important to the industry is that they be part of the process of defining the boundaries of closure areas. They are now working with DFO, ENGOs and other stakeholders in developing a sponge and coral protection strategy under the Federal Oceans Act. The trawlers and other commercial fishing interests are also participants in the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area process.

LOS is working to provide new information on corals and their communities and is raising the public profile of the situation. DFO is sponsoring a public process leading to ecosystem-based management. All parties seem to be at the table. Hopefully, these are the elements needed for a new course for the protection of BC’s coral.

Mike Morrell is is an independent fishery biologist and a member of the Watershed Sentinel board. He lives on Denman Island in western Canada. For more information see the Living Oceans Society website: www. findingcoral. com

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