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Canada is taking steps to safeguard a coral reef that experts believe should not be able to exist. No other options available.
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No alternative Canada is taking steps to safeguard a coral reef that experts believe should not be able to exist. No other options available.

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Deep in the unfriendly waters off the western coast of Canada, nestled in a narrow channel encircled by steep-sided valleys, lies a coral reef that experts consider to be an anomaly. This reef marks the furthest north that a Pacific Ocean reef has been found, providing scientists with a unique opportunity to further understand the adaptability and unpredictability of deep-sea ecosystems.

For many years, individuals from the Kitasoo Xai’xais and Heiltsuk First Nations, both residing in the Central Coast region of British Columbia, have observed sizable gatherings of rockfish in a series of fjords.

In 2021, a team of researchers and First Nations worked with the Canadian government to launch a remote-controlled underwater vehicle to explore the Finlayson Channel, located approximately 300 miles northwest of Vancouver.

During the last of around 20 dives, the team came across a surprising finding – one that had only been revealed to the public recently.

“When we first laid eyes on the living corals, there was skepticism among everyone,” shares Cherisse Du Preez, leader of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s deep-sea ecology program. “But once we witnessed the vast expanse of coral fields before us, all doubts dissipated and everyone was overcome with raw human emotions.”

Even in total darkness, the lights on the submersible revealed the vibrant hues of corals and sponges.

In the subsequent year, the group charted Lophelia Reef, also known as q̓áuc̓íwísuxv in the languages of the Kitasoo Xai’xais and Heiltsuk First Nations. This is the sole identified coral reef in the country that is still alive.

The discovery marks the latest in a string of instances in which Indigenous knowledge has directed researchers to areas of scientific or historic importance. More than a decade ago, Inuk oral historian Louie Kamookak compared Inuit stories with explorers’ logbooks and journals to help locate Sir John Franklin’s lost ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. In 2014, divers located the wreck of the Erebus in a spot Kamookak suggested they search, and using his directions found the Terror two years later.

A remote-controlled submersible is lowered into the Finlayson Channel, British Columbia, Canada.View image in fullscreen

These lophelia corals that create the reef are similar to those found in the depths of the Atlantic and large areas of the Pacific Ocean below California. The most extensive reefs can cover multiple miles and take thousands of years to fully develop. The q̓áuc̓íwísuxv reef, for example, covers 10 hectares (25 acres) with healthy corals.

Du Preez explains that the Pacific contains some of the most ancient water on the planet, resulting in low oxygen levels that pose a challenge for the survival of coral.

The northern Pacific Ocean experiences high levels of acidification, causing the breakdown of coral’s calcium carbonate structures. “We used to believe that the essential components for reef formation were absent in this area,” she explains.

The researchers believe that the reef’s exclusive positioning within a fjord with colder-than-normal water may clarify its ability to flourish. Additionally, the ridge where the coral is located is situated in a region with water column mixing, which brings in a high supply of oxygenated water to the coral.

“Initially, one may assume that a coral reef of this scale is unique. However, it is improbable as per the laws of nature. Our next course of action is to locate other similar reefs that surely exist,” states Du Preez.

The Canadian government’s fishery department recently declared that all bottom-contact fishing activities, including mid-water trawling, are now prohibited in the vicinity of the reef, both for commercial and recreational purposes.

Although attempts have been made to safeguard the region, the discovery of deceased coral on the outskirts of the reef emphasizes the distinctive susceptibility of lophelia coral to rising ocean temperatures and heightened acidification, both indicative of a shifting climate.

According to Du Preez, the reefs are firmly attached to the rock and if the foundation is eroded, they will easily detach and decay into the deep water. However, by regulating all human activities in the vicinity, we can increase the likelihood of the reef surviving during climate change – and potentially expanding into unoccupied territories.

In addition to the lophelia coral, a substantial glass sponge reef was also discovered by researchers. It is improbable that these two species have encountered each other in any other location on the planet.

“According to Du Preez, the deep ocean has no regulations. As a result, it is possible to observe two different species coexisting, either conflicting or collaborating. For scientists, witnessing seemingly impossible occurrences is incredibly thrilling.”

Source: theguardian.com