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Thursday, June 23, 2011

B.C.'s corals need more protection, not more words

Not many people know about deep-sea corals. This is partly because they are in the deep sea, which is hard to visit while still remaining alive, and it's also partly because corals don't participate in televised dancing or weight-loss competitions, which if we're honest with ourselves is what you have to do to get noticed these days.

If you want that kind of information, you have to invade their privacy and film them yourself.

So, call deep-sea corals old-fashioned. They won't care. After all, it's pretty common for deep-sea coral colonies to be hundreds of years old, and the real old-timers - the black corals - can have birthday cakes with over two thousand candles on them.

Here in Canada's Pacific, we have roughly 100 species of deep-sea corals, although that number will likely grow as we learn more. The corals we have out here don't form reefs like their more familiar, shallow-water counterparts, but they can grow in dense aggregations known as coral forests.

Whether they grow in forests or alone, the structures that corals build are important for many animals living in the deep sea, including important commercials species such as rockfish. However, deep-sea corals tend to be fragile, and are easily damaged or destroyed by some kinds of fishing gear. And where corals (and sponges) have been destroyed by bottom trawling, many species of rockfish are strangely...absent. Because corals take so long to grow, recovery from fisheries' impacts may be very long, or may not occur at all.

So, they're important for commercial fish, and are easily destroyed by fishing activities. You may think that this would have made them an obvious candidate for careful and cautious management by DFO throughout the years.

Ha! Joke's on you. Despite their ecological importance and their fragility, the Canadian government has historically done nothing to protect the Pacific region's corals from damage by commercial fisheries. There is not one square centimeter of the Canadian Pacific that is set aside specifically for the purpose of protecting deep-sea corals.

Living Oceans Society has spent years trying to change that. In no particular order, we have:
  • analyzed data for bottom trawl catch of corals and sponges to identify areas requiring protection;
  • pushed Canada to support a proposed UN moratorium on high-seas bottom trawling;
  • worked with partner groups and the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition to ensure that Canada supports strong measures for coral protection on the high seas;
  • angered people (no link required);
  • worked with partner ENGOs to produce an assessment of the ecological impacts of Canada's fishing gears;
  • when none of that seemed to be working, we organized and led the Finding Coral Expedition to collect important scientific information on the identity, location, and ecological functions of B.C.'s corals, and to call popular attention to corals, and the need to protect them;
  • presented information on B.C.'s corals at numerous science meetings, workshops, and conferences;
  • spent countless hours dissecting draft policies and strategies, and meeting with government on said draft policies and strategies
What have we gotten for this effort? Words. So far, we've gotten only words.

We've gotten lots of those, in fact. We get spoken words from bureaucrats, written words in science documents, more written words in policies and strategies. And now, with the release of the long-awaited Pacific Region Cold-Water Coral and Sponge Conservation Strategy, we have even more words.

Now, don't get me wrong. The Strategy is not bad. In fact, if it were implemented tomorrow we'd be pretty daggone happy. However, there are two important issues with it:

1) The Strategy does not require interim protection for corals. This means that corals are every bit as unprotected today as they were before the Strategy was released, and they will remain unprotected until the various strands of the Strategy are implemented over the course of several years- each according to its own timeline. So, while a small army of bureaucrats spends the next few years engaged in countless conference calls and meetings in order to implement this strategy, commercial fisheries can and will continue to damage and destroy corals - damage which is largely irreversible. We asked for interim protection as a key part of this Strategy- we've been asking for this for years - but it was ignored.

2) The critical policy piece required to manage fisheries impacts on corals and sponges is still missing. Bottom fishing is far and away the greatest direct threat to corals and sponges in Canada's Pacific. This new Strategy relies on something called the Ecological Risk Analysis Framework (ERAF) to address fisheries impacts.

The only problem is that the ERAF doesn't exist yet. You see, the ERAF is this semi-mythical piece of work that has been bubbling in DFO's policy brewpot for over two years now. Like some bureaucratic chupacabra, we sometimes get reports of it. Not sightings, of course- nobody has seen it in months. We sometimes sniff its musk on some DFO bureaucrat or see its cloven hoofprint in some document...but we never see it. And until this ERAF is done, this new Strategy won't be able to address fisheries impacts.

While the Strategy does indeed include many aspects that we fully support, we know from experience that these words mean nothing if they are not put into action. And this is where we need you to help. Click here to ask the new Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, the Honourable Keith Ashfield, to implement interim protection for the most important coral areas in the Pacific, and to finish the Ecological Risk Analysis Framework so that Canada can get to work putting all of these other policies and strategies into action.

Small Swiftia coral collected during the Finding Coral Expedition.
This coral had over 20 other invertebrates on it.
(Photo Credit: Mark Wunsch on the Finding Coral Expedition)


  1. Is it better to have a strategy that's 'okay' but doesn't include everything you want, or no strategy at all? This is a serious question, because chances are the strategy would still be held up in the Tower of DFO Bureaucracy, and even more insane amounts of time would have been spent on conference calls had interim protection or management of fisheries impacts on coral been pushed for inclusion. While words cannot protect corals, they are an important step for DFO to start to commit to steps, perhaps, but steps nonetheless.

  2. It is a serious question, and thanks for posting it. Obviously, it's better to have some movement than no movement at all. However, the two concerns that we highlighted are more than just minor quibbles. The interim protection aspect is important for the reasons mentioned in the blog, so I won't go back into that, but I will dig a bit deeper into the ERAF aspect: very simply, bottom fisheries are the major direct threat for corals and sponges on this coast. The management tool that will supposedly be used to manage fisheries impacts on such sensitive habitats does not yet exist. It just doesn't exist. DFO's been working on it for a while, and it very well may be getting close...but it's not done. For this reason, even with the release of the new Strategy, DFO isn't really any closer to managing the most important direct threat to corals and sponges.

  3. Aaaaand I should probably finish my thought.

    The point I was trying (and failing) to make is that I wasn't just being critical for the fun of it. I wasn't just making the perfect the enemy of the good. For the foreseeable future, corals in the Pacific will remain thoroughly unprotected from fisheries impacts, same as they were before this Strategy was released. That's not a minor detail.