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The north Pacific is home to corals such as this red tree coral, and the expedition will try to find out which types exist off the B.C. coast. ((Victoria O'Connell/Alaska Department of Fisheries and Game))

Researchers hope a new study of deep sea corals along Canada's Pacific coast will lead the government to protect the fragile organisms from fishing practices such as bottom trawling.

The corals are currently "virtually unprotected," said Jennifer Lash, leader of the Finding Coral Expedition, on Monday.

June 8 has been declared the first United Nations World Oceans Day and is the day the study will launch from North Vancouver.

The two-week study, funded by the Sointula, B.C.-based marine conservation group Living Oceans Society, will bring a team of researchers to the Hecate Strait and the Queen Charlotte Basin. There, they will dive in single-person submarines as deep as 500 metres — about as deep as Toronto's CN Tower is high.

Lash, who is also executive director of the Living Oceans Society, said the first dive is expected to take place on Wednesday off the northern tip of Vancouver Island.

"We want to find out what types of species of corals exist on the coast, where they can be found, and we also want to get a better understanding of what other marine species depend on these corals," she added.

A smaller study last year by Fisheries and Oceans Canada found marine animals use B.C. corals as sanctuaries from predators and ocean currents, and as feeding grounds and nurseries. One of the researchers on the current expedition, Thomas Shirley of Texas A & M University - Corpus Christi, found that fish, shrimp and crabs can be found in coral habitats in Alaska.

Trawling clearcuts 'coral forests': environment group

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The researchers will survey a number of sites in the Hecate Strait and the Queen Charlotte Basin. ((Living Oceans Society))

Nevertheless, there is currently trawling throughout the study area off the B.C. coast, except for two small patches where the corals live in areas that were closed in order to protect deep sea sponges, Lash said.

The Sierra Club of Canada, a national environmental group, said in a news release Monday that some deep sea coral "forests" take hundreds to thousands of years to grow.

"When a forest is clear cut above ground, people see and react to that, but coral forests are being clear cut under water, and no one knows or appreciates it until someone goes down there with a camera," said Gretchen Fitzgerald, director of Sierra Club's Atlantic chapter in a statement.

Chapter chairman Fred Winsor was in Ottawa on Monday, calling for the government of Canada to protect such marine habitats through the establishment of larger marine sanctuaries and regulations to prevent destructive fishing methods such as trawling.

"Right now, you can essentially fish with any gear if you have a licence to do it, and really there's no … control of damaging habitat whatsoever," said Winsor.

He added that less than one-tenth of one per cent of Canada's oceans are currently protected by marine sanctuaries.

Other studies led to trawling bans: Lash

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Researchers will use two one-person submarines, such as this one carrying researcher Tom Shirley. ((Living Oceans Society))

Lash said where studies of corals have been conducted, jurisdictions have taken steps to protect the corals. For example, Norway, New Zealand and Alaska have all banned bottom trawling in areas comprising thousands of square kilometres each.

"So, we believe that by increasing our understanding of the role of these corals in our ecosystems here in the Pacific Coast of Canada, we'll see the same thing happen here," Lash said.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans scientist Greg Workman is participating in the study at the invitation of the Living Oceans Society. The department also helped with planning and training for the expedition, Workman said.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada conducted a survey of corals on Learmonth Bank, north of the Queen Charlotte Islands and at the Juan de Fuca Canyon near the B.C.-Washington border in 2008. The current study will build on that data by collecting specimens, video images and measuring live creatures using laser-based tools, Workman added.

That will be used to develop and guide policies such as a national draft policy concerning human activity on the sea floor, including trawling, dredging and cable laying, Workman said.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada said the research will also help better identify and manage the impact of human activities on Canada’s oceans, conserve the productivity and richness of unique and vulnerable ecosystems, support future analysis to promote conservation and sustainable use, and ensure that scientific facts are available for the creation of fisheries management plans.

In March 2009, DFO began a planning process for the management of the waters that stretches from Campbell River to Prince Rupert to the Queen Charlottes, and the Living Oceans Society said it hopes the data gathered in the current coral study will help inform those discussions.

World Oceans Day was first proposed by Canada in 1992 at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro to raise awareness about the importance of the Earth's oceans. Canada itself started officially celebrating Oceans Day in 1998, the International Year of the Ocean, but the day was not recognized by the United Nations until 2009.