Diving into the Deep: Coral and Sponge Conservation in Canada

Transcript

Narrator

We have had a partnership with the world’s oceans since the first humans walked the Earth. We rely on the ocean for food, transportation, fuel, medicine and even for decoration. This partnership has been mostly one sided. We took from the ocean without much thought of giving back or understanding the consequences. For generations, it was thought the resources of the ocean were endless. In the last few decades, we have finally come to realize the bounties of the ocean can be depleted. It has also become apparent that there is much about the ocean we have yet to learn.

Scientists, and those who make a living from the sea, are trying to play catch-up to understand the diversity of life in the world’s oceans. This quest for understanding is particularly pressing in Canada. With the collapse of the cod stocks in the north Atlantic, variability in salmon stocks in the Pacific Ocean off British Columbia and the heightened interest in the resources of the Arctic Ocean, many Canadians feel we need a better understanding of how to conserve our ocean resources.

Captain Cecil Bannister, Fish Harvester, Newfoundland and Labrador

When I started in the 70s, we fished mostly yellow-tail, flounder on the tail of the Grand Banks, then in the 80s we move north to the cod fish and that disappeared after a while, and right now its shrimp and crab.

Brian Mose, skipper/vessel owner, British Columbia

After quite a few decades now, I’ve leave through different regimes shifts in the ocean environmental conditions and with them come a time of more productive or less productive and you see the behavior of the fish in those more productive and less productive times and those swings are the biggest changes that you’ll see as a fisherman, by the end of your career you’ll recognize those as the biggest changes

Narrator

One important lesson we have learned is that all things in the ocean have value and play a role in the sustained health of the ocean. We must do our best to minimize the unnecessary destruction of any of our ocean’s lifeforms, be they coastal plants like eel grass and kelp or animals such as sea urchins and star fish

Jim Boutillier, marine ecosystem research co-ordinator, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

It’s probably the best example in the Pacific of an organism that declined and caused a major shift in the animals in the ecosystem is the decline in the sea otters in the early 1900s. As sea otters disappeared, their prey, in particular sea urchins began to expand and as the sea urchins expanded they began to eat the kelp. Kelp forests and kelp communities started to disappear, ultimately leaving us with areas that had large abundances of sea urchins with nothing else. As we reintroduce sea otters they began to eat the urchins and we started to see recovery of the kelp and kelp communities. As the otter populations are expanding, they are beginning to have impacts on other organisms. We are beginning to sea declines in some areas of clams and crabs and gooey ducks.

Narrator

Deep sea or cold water corals and sponges are two of the groups of organisms scientists are only now learning about. These are different than corals found in the tropics that need sunlight to live. Thought by many to be a type of plant, corals and sponges are actually living animals. Cold water corals are stationary creatures that can live in isolation or in colonies. They can be found from the intertidal zone to the depths of the world’s oceans. Many exist at depths up to 6 km below the surface. Cold water corals may be found living on all ocean bottom types, from rock to sand covered surfaces. They survive by eating small animals and feeding on material that drifts through the water. Sponges may be found in the same range of oceans depth as corals. Sponges are unique in that they have no internal organs. Most cold water corals and sponges are slow growing and long-lived animals. Some of the corals that exist today started to grow hundreds of years ago. Many are fragile and it can take decades or even centuries for a colony to recover from a disturbance of its habitat. In the past, there was very little research conducted on deep sea corals and sponges. The environment they live in is so harsh and difficult to access that studying them was not viable. Most of the evidence of their existence came from specimens that were dragged from the bottom, tangled in deep-sea fishing gear.

Captain Cecil Bannister, Fish Harvester, Newfoundland and Labrador

We discovered corals and sponges years ago quite by accident, we hauled them up in the trolls but we didn’t have any indication that it was any fish habitat; we didn’t know what it was. We saw them as a nuisance there was no benefit to us, it was more detrimental to us than any benefit.

Narrator

Research in Canada’s off-shore areas is not always an easy task, the ocean is vast and the weather can be unpredictable, the water is cold and deep. Until recently, these were some of the major impediments to conducting research on deep sea corals and sponges. Advances in technology have enabled researchers to reach ocean recesses and observe corals and sponges in their natural habitat. Though the scientific knowledge about these creatures is still relatively recent, a number of things have been learned about these unique animals.

Vonda Elaine Wareham, deep-sea coral and sponge biologist, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Some of the most recent discoveries we’ve found regarding corals and sponges in the Newfoundland and Labrador region is how diverse they are and how widespread they are. We found them off Newfoundland right up to the Arctic Ocean. They range in size from a few millimetres to over 7 feet tall. These large corals are important on their own as individual colonies but as well they are even more important when found in large concentrations. Individually they provide habitat but as a group they provide unique ecosystems that are not found in other parts of the region.

Jim Boutillier, marine ecosystem research co-ordinator, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

The pacific is an older ocean and we have an awful lot of animals here. The one thing that we have learned about corals and sponges is that we certainly don’t know all of them. People are finding new species all the time. These are new species to science. The last 10 years has been very exciting in terms of the whole world coming together and starting to take more interest in these kinds of organisms and making sure that we actually do take care of them and their importance in the whole ecosystem and how that ecosystem functions because of them.

Narrator

New knowledge has enabled scientists and the fishing industry to understand the importance of protecting areas where corals and sponges exist.

Captain Cecil Bannister, Fish Harvester, Newfoundland and Labrador

It is very beneficial to fisherman to avoid the places of corals and sponges because it is the home of tomorrow’s fish. It’s where the young fish develop and grow and besides, if you fish there and you get into corals and sponges you get a lot of damage to the net, which is detrimental to the fisherman and no fisherman wants to do that. The sponges also because when you haul up the sponges you get the odor that goes through the fish and destroys the quality of the fish

Vonda Elaine Wareham, deep-sea coral and sponge biologist, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

There’s two important things that fish harvesters can do to help further deep sea coral and sponge research. The first is to share information on where these large concentrations are located that way we can conduct in-situ research, send down a remotely operated vehicle so we can investigate it further. The second thing that they can do is actually submit sample that they capture as by-catch that way we can determine what species they are capturing, what communities they are comprised of and any other potential research that we can carry out on those particular specimens.

Brian Mose, skipper/vessel owner, British Columbia

There’s another important aspect which I’ve recognized in getting involved with science from a fish-harvesters point of view is educating the harvesters on all of the components and methodology and the process of developing good stock assessment, using that as an example. And helping harvesters understand the interrelationships of all these things within the ecosystem that produce this result. That has been a learning curve that has really been welcomed in our community of fish harvesters and we’re becoming more sophisticated and more educated within that process

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It is not possible or practical to eliminate all human impact on coral and sponge habitat off our coasts. However, some researchers are working on changes to fishing gear that will assist harvester in minimizing the negative effects fishing efforts have on corals and sponges.

Dr. Paul Winger, Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University

Here at the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University we’ve been working on a number of different innovations in bottom trawl design and operations. Today’s bottoms trawls are much more sophisticated than they use to be several decades ago. There’s a need for increasing fuel efficiency, increasing by-catch reduction as well as the need to reduce sea bed impacts on the sea bed. Lightening and lifting bottom-trawls off the sea bed is simply what we need to do in the future. Damaging the sea bed is not acceptable to today’s seafood consumers and the seafood industry here in Atlantic Canada is responding.

Captain Cecil Bannister, Fish Harvester, Newfoundland and Labrador

The attitude of fisherman today has changed quite a bit from years ago. The fishermen are more conservative today. They look at the fishery in a different light. They try to protect it more for the future than they did years ago.

Brian Mose, skipper/vessel owner, British Columbia

As fishermen, we have significant human and financial investment in the resource, in a healthy resource. So, it’s important to understand that our investments and our culture is entirely dependent on a healthy resource. We feel that we are at the front line of protecting the resource

Narrator

As time goes on and technology advances, we hope to know more about the ocean and the interaction of plants and creatures that inhabit it. Fisheries and ocean Canada is currently working at domestic and international levels to identify vulnerable areas and is exploring new ways to further protect such areas. This includes restricting activities that have negative impacts on the ocean floor, including fishing in vulnerable areas. It is hoped this new knowledge along with cooperation between stakeholders will advance sustainable use and preservation of ocean resources for generations to come.