Expert Voices

Undersea 'Grand Canyons' Host Hidden Life Just Miles from Manhattan (Op-Ed)

Alison Chase is a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. This Op-Ed will appear on the NRDC blog Switchboard. Chasecontributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

Roughly 100 miles off Manhattan's shoreline, the continental shelf plunges deep down into a world of sharp slopes and undersea caverns, filled with an amazing garden of Dr. Seuss-like shapes and colors. This is Hudson Canyon — a city in its own right, brimming with an extraordinary universe of life.

Hard to imagine a flooded Grand Canyon? The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) film, "Ocean Oases,"narrated by Philippe Cousteau, reveals the submarine canyons that run from offshore Cape Hatteras to southeast of Cape Cod and the neighboring, equally spectacular, dormant volcanoes called seamounts that rise thousands of feet from the ocean depths.

The underwater canyons and seamounts provide nursery habitat, food and shelter for hundreds of familiar fish and crustacean species — tilefish, monkfish, various species of flounder, hakes and skates, American lobster and red crab — as well as lesser-known species such as cod-like grenadiers and bioluminescent lanternfish.

Many of the environments host communities of vibrant and rare coldwater corals, anemones and sponges. Deep-sea corals and sponges have yielded scientific and technological advances, including compounds for cancer treatments, models for artificial synthesis of human bone and elements used to design more durable optic cables.

The canyons and seamounts also support a wide array of marine mammals like the endangered sperm whale — which has the largest brain of any animal (up to 20 lbs.) and can eat up to a ton of squid and fish a day.

The rich waters of many of the canyons are also important fishing spots, attracting commercial and recreational fishermen to the schools of squid, mackerel and the bigger (sometimes much bigger) fish like marlin, tuna and swordfish that feed on them.

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Every day, scientists are learning more about these unique areas. Recent ocean expeditions discovered new coral communities in Hendrickson and Block Canyons, off the coast of New Jersey and New York, as well as in several canyons and seamounts off the southern New England coast.

As the film explains, society has a short window of time to protect these unique ocean features. Deep-sea corals are highly vulnerable to harm from fishing gear, in part because they are generally very slow-growing. And, new "canyon buster" and "rock hopper" trawling gear enable fishing along the previously inaccessible ocean bottom. One pass of trawl gear can destroy corals that have been growing for literally thousands of years. What's as alarming, authorities are considering allowingseismic oil and gas exploration off the Eastern seaboard, which not only presages potential drilling, but also is in itself harmful to marine mammals, as highlighted in the film.

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is taking steps to save precious places like these, before it's too late. They will soon be asking for public comment on coral protections — both those within the iconic canyons and for other offshore areas where the fragile corals live. NRDC is working to ensure that these incredible resources aren't irretrievably harmed.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)