The ocean is mysterious. It has obscured many of our planet’s most fantastic treasures from view since time immemorial, tucking them away in remote tropical waters, or hiding them deep beneath the white-capped fangs of raging polar seas. Sadly, many of these wonders are threatened by unbridled fishing pressure, deluges of castaway plastics, and a simple but devastating characteristic that, more than anything else, could guarantee their destruction: anonymity.
In this installment of “4 Oceans,” we’ll take a look at four astonishing marine marvels that most people have never heard of, and then discuss how these delicate ecosystems are under threat and what we as consumers can do to protect them.
1. Zhemchug Canyon
Zhemchug (“pearl” in Russian) is the longest, widest and deepest canyon in the world. Its total volume is nearly twice that of the Grand Canyon. It is vast beyond description and teems with fascinating organisms. It is also hundreds of fathoms underwater.
Zhemchug, sprawling southwest from the Alaskan shore and deep into the Bering Sea, is home to dozens of soft corals, sponges and other invertebrates found nowhere else in the world. Only in the last five years have scientists have begun to plumb the depths of Zhemchug, and we still have virtually no information on what marvels it may conceal. That said, time is already running out.
Every year, the Alaskan pollock fleet rakes Zhemchug repeatedly with gigantic trawl nets in its relentless quest for fish protein (pollock is the low-value, high-volume fish often used to make products like fish sticks and fast-food fish sandwiches). While there is an argument for using pollock in our food system, there is no excuse for pulverizing Zhemchug Canyon (or its neighbor, Pribilof Canyon) to get it.
The pollock fishery covers thousands upon thousands of square miles outside of the canyons, and the vast majority of pollock is caught in these areas rather than Zhemchug or Pribilof. Pollock producers and companies that sell pollock products must commit to sourcing their pollock from outside the canyons if these amazing treasures are to survive.
To help protect Zhemchug Canyon: Avoid pollock products until leading seafood companies pledge only to source pollock from outside of the canyons, and then support those companies.
2. The Ross Sea
The Ross Sea, a remote, half-frozen dent in the side of Antarctica, is aptly nicknamed the ”the Last Ocean” — it is the only remaining oceanic ecosystem on our planet with a relatively intact animal population at all levels of the food chain. Elsewhere in the world, the ocean’s apex predators — sharks, bluefin tuna, swordfish, etc. — have been fished to the point of near-collapse. After nearly a century of industrialized fishing, the Ross is the only remaining sea that still has a strong top-level predator population.
The Ross Sea has no sharks. Instead, the food chain is dominated by two predators: the Antarctic toothfish and the Ross Sea orca. The toothfish, more commonly known by its menu-friendly moniker “Chilean sea bass” is the largest fish in the Ross Sea and a lynchpin of its ecosystem. The Ross Sea orca is a rare and isolated subspecies of killer whale found nowhere else in the world. Both species are under threat.
The Ross Sea is under increasing pressure by an emerging fishery targeting Antarctic toothfish. In order to satisfy a hunger for Chilean sea bass fillets, ships are now beginning to enter the last pristine ocean in search for white-fleshed plunder. Chilean sea bass is also a prime prey item for the Ross Sea orca, and recent science has identified a correlation between decreasing Antarctic toothfish populations and a diminishing orca presence.
To protect the Ross Sea: avoid Chilean sea bass, especially from the Ross Sea. Also, don’t be fooled by certifications — astonishingly, the Ross Sea toothfish fishery is Marine Stewardship Council-certified.
3. Palmyra Atoll
Cast far into the Pacific like a stone that has lost a child’s interest, Palmyra Atoll is a tropical wonderland upon which humanity has taken a sort of self-serving pity. Once privately owned by a wealthy American family, Palmyra was purchased some time ago by the Nature Conservancy in an effort to safeguard this virtually untouched ecosystem for study and posterity, and the atoll still boasts strong populations of many species that are disappearing from other areas of the tropics at astonishing rates.
Unfortunately, localized precautions cannot forestall a larger creeping doom that threatens to swallow Palmyra like a massive turtle — the menace of global climate change.
As we pump carbon into our atmosphere, we increase the rate at which our polar ice caps melt and give these areas less time to re-freeze in the winter. As such, water that had been frozen for eons is now streaming into the ocean, causing global sea levels to rise. A few vertical inches can spell the end for atolls like Palmyra, which is just one of the many sandbank jewels scattered about our world that may not survive to see the coming decades.
To save Palmyra: the best we can do is support clean energy efforts, limit our consumption of fossil fuels, and keep the climate crisis in mind as we go about our daily lives.
4. The Sargasso Sea
The world’s only “sea without shores” is geographically defined not by a neighboring land mass, but rather by the spatial dimensions of its own ecosystem. There is no other expanse of ocean like the Sargasso; a unique conflux of swirling currents, temperate weather, and the calming winds of the horse latitudes has given rise to an enormous morass of Sargassum seaweed. This vast aquatic jungle is the basis of an entire ecology involving dozens of species found nowhere else in the world.
Between the leafy sea dragons, pipefish and man-o-war peppering the Sargasso swim American and European freshwater eels, known in the sushi industry as unagi. These animals hatch in the waters of the Sargasso and are slowly swept along by the currents of the Atlantic Ocean. When the tiny eels enter water with decreased salinity — due to a nearby river mouth — they transform, developing muscles and the ability to propel their bodies through the water. These eels — now known as “elvers” — swim directly upriver, where they feed, grow and mature. They will spend their life in fresh water until they reach adulthood, whereupon they leave the river system and return to the Sargasso Sea to mate. All freshwater eels from both sides of the North Atlantic come to the Sargasso, and nowhere else, for this purpose.
But the Sargasso is in trouble. Not only are eels themselves severely overfished (that unagi at your local sushi bar may be “farmed,” but in reality, it was captured from the wild as an elver and transferred to a rearing facility for fattening), but the greedy eddies of the Sargasso attract massive amounts of jetsam from all over the Atlantic, especially plastic and container waste, which disrupt the ecosystem and hinder many animals’ ability to feed.
To help save the Sargasso: avoid unagi, and be judicious about the use of plastic bags and other refuse that often ends up in the oceans.