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Aboard thermal airship, Greenpeace takes to the sky

Environmental group advocates for protection of underwater canyons in the Bering Sea

Posted: June 11, 2013 - 12:25am
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Mitchell Wenkus, Video Producer for Greenpeace, photographs their thermal Airship A.E. Bates as it flies over Juneau's harbor Saturday evening to bring attention to underwater canyons in the Bering Sea.  The environmental group, with it's airship carrying a 75 foot whale-themed banner, is seeking a decision by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in Juneau this week to help protect the "grand Canyons of the Sea."  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Mitchell Wenkus, Video Producer for Greenpeace, photographs their thermal Airship A.E. Bates as it flies over Juneau's harbor Saturday evening to bring attention to underwater canyons in the Bering Sea. The environmental group, with it's airship carrying a 75 foot whale-themed banner, is seeking a decision by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting in Juneau this week to help protect the "grand Canyons of the Sea."

Cruising slowly above the Gastineau Channel at about 15 to 20 miles per hour, as the cruise ships left the downtown port and the setting sun descended behind the Chilkat Range Saturday evening, the pilot of the Greenpeace thermal airship navigated turns and altitude to keep the aircraft between 50 and 200 feet off the water.

“We fly low, relatively low because we want the message to be seen,” he explains as the airship made several circuits from Savikko Park to the Juneau-Douglas Bridge.

The message, inscribed on a 75-foot banner on the left side of the grass-green colored airship, could not be missed by pedestrians, or anyone else who chanced looking skyward: “Protect my home,” it reads in white letters atop a whale painted black. “beringseacanyons.org.”

Greenpeace flew the airship over Juneau to raise awareness of the Bering Sea Canyons, an underwater formation so large one of the canyons can only be seen from space, and home to a diverse deep-sea marine ecosystem. It’s also the richest fishing grounds in the United States, as more than a billion dollars worth of seafood is harvested from the Bering Sea annually; 1.2 million metric tons of pollock, which when prepared is the ingredient in fish sandwiches, popcorn fish, fish sticks and imitation crab meat, is harvested from the Bering Sea each year.

The environmental group is concerned fishing near the continental shelf break zone is destroying the canyons’ marine life habitat. They are advocating for its protection as the North Pacific Fishery Management Council meets this week in the Capital City to decide if fishing there should be regulated.

“We feel that it’s very important for people to know what’s at stake as we fish through these canyons,” Jackie Dragon, a Greenpeace Senior Oceans Campaigner, said in an interview at the airship launch site Saturday. “People need to know what the ecological price of that fish sandwich is. They need to be assured that when they are having their California roll or their fish sticks that it’s not contributing to damaging or destroying the very habitat that’s going to keep that food coming to our grocery store shelves and dinner plates.”

Dragon stresses that Greenpeace does not want to stop fishing in Bering Sea in its entirety. In fact, she says they are trying to ensure that it will remain fruitful and productive for generations to come, especially since the fish is shipped all over the world feeding millions of people and also given the fact that Native Alaskans in the Aleutian Islands have been subsisting from those waters for thousands of years.

What they want, she says, is to have several “control” areas in the most critical habitat in the Zhemchug and Pribliof Canyons where fishing will be prohibited in order to keep the ecosystem of the sea floor intact. The idea is that having control areas will allow scientists to study the region to further their understanding of the impact fishing has there, which will ultimately affect management decisions.

“The reasons that we are recommending to put protections in place for these canyons and for the fragile corals and sponges that create this habitat — the only hiding places or places that some of these fish and other marine life have to take cover or from other predators or to find food sources and things like that in the ocean — and these animals grow like a couple of centimeters a year and take hundreds of years to develop into the structure, the habitat structure they create in the ocean. But a trawl net can wipe out huge swaths of them in a second and they’re gone,” she says. “And if they ever come back, it’s likely to take decades, if not hundreds of years. So that’s an extraordinary reality. So we’ve been simply saying if this is such an important place in one of our most important large marine ecosystems, our largest fishery in the U.S. that we want to protect, it makes sense to protect representable portions of that most important shelf break zone. And the largest underwater canyons in the world, the grand canyons of the sea, look like really appropriate spots for a bit of protection to us.”

Greenpeace has been advocating for protection of the canyons for the past decade or two. The director of the Greenpeace Oceans Campaign, John Hocevar, says the organization requested the council to take the issue up in 2006. The council at that time decided no action would be taken to curb fishing since so little about the territory is unknown, but that it would make the canyons a high priority research for the council.

“We took that as an invitation,” Hocevar said.

Greenpeace conducted two expeditions to the aforementioned canyons in 2007 and 2012. Hocevar, who is also a marine biologist, led about half of the 40 dives, driving their submarine almost 2,000 feet under the sea. What they found was astounding, he said: a sponge species never before known to science in Pribliof canyon; multiple species of corals that were previously unknown to exist so far north; and possibly the largest skate nursery that anyone has discovered, in Zhemchug canyon, which is 60 miles wide and 9,000 feet deep.

“One of the things that I think people just have no idea is that there are corals in Alaska waters,” he said. “People think of them as tropical. We found 16 species of deep-sea corals in the canyons, we discovered a new species of sponge.

He added the newly discovered sponge was named by people on the Pribliof Islands. They named it Kanuux, “the Aleut word for heart,” he said, “to show that the canyons are the heart of the Bering Sea.”

The discoveries made during just two expeditions, which were published in scientific journals, is testament to the fact that there is much unknown about the canyons, which Hocevar says reaffirms the need for protected areas.

“We need to set aside portions of that shelf break to, sort of as an insurance policy, to make sure we don’t make a very costly mistake,” he said. “There’s so much that we still don’t know about how our ocean ecosystems actually work. We know that we’re having some impact. We’re not really sure how significant it is, or what is affected in what way. So it only makes sense to give ourselves a little bit of a safety net by creating some protections for areas that we know are important.”

As Greenpeace continues to push for the protection of the canyons, the airship continues to soar above Juneau. Pilot Crispin Williams, of Bristol, England, says they were aiming for at least one flight a day — beginning Saturday — until the council makes their decision on Monday evening.

“This airship isn’t a question of persuading people who don’t agree,” said Williams, who has flown in most of the Greenpeace campaigns since 2010 when the airship was purchased. “It’s often just to try to tip the balance, and that’s really what it’s about.”

• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at emily.miller@juneauempire.com.

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