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Celebrating New York’s Seascape on World Oceans Day

By Jon Forrest Dohlin

You may not think that the words “metropolis and “corals” belong in the same sentence.  So you might be rather surprised to hear that beautiful deep-sea coral communities can be found lurking just a few hours’ boat ride from New York City, one of most urbanized settings in the world. And that’s not all you’ll find. Our local ocean waters, in fact, serve as feeding grounds, nurseries, and migratory pathways for a wide variety of marine species, some of which are threatened or severely depleted.

Hundreds—even thousands—of feet below the surface, in the midnight zone where no sunlight penetrates, ancient and beautiful corals grow in thickets, isolated colonies, or as solitary individuals in deep, cold water in our area’s massive Hudson Canyon. Located 100 miles off the coast of New York City, this spectacular underwater formation – the size of the Grand Canyon – is the drowned bed of the Hudson River and extends hundreds of miles to the edge of the continental shelf.

Visitors to the renovated New York Aquarium will get a window into the ocean wilderness that surrounds this city of islands. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS
Visitors to the New York Aquarium are provided a window into the ocean wilderness that surrounds this city of islands. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

Hudson Canyon—by far the largest of the East Coast’s  canyons—provides crucial habitat for many marine species (including commercially valuable squid, tilefish, and lobsters) and supports legions of seasonally migrating whales, sharks, and tunas.

June 8 is the United Nations-designated World Oceans Day. It’s a day to contemplate just how vital our marine environment is to the biodiversity on planet Earth. Nowhere is that truer than in the local seascape of New York, where the abundance and diversity of marine wildlife and the health of our waters have been vital to both our local economy and our cultural life.

More than a quarter of a million local jobs depend on a healthy coastal and ocean habitat. The commercial fishing industry alone landed almost 27.7 million pounds of fish, shellfish and crustaceans in 2010, worth about $34 million.

Glass hydroids (Campanularia sp.) pictured along the Lizzie D shipwreck in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by © Keith Ellenbogen
Glass hydroids (Campanularia sp.) pictured along the Lizzie D shipwreck in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by © Keith Ellenbogen

More and more, New Yorkers are coming to appreciate the benefits of living in a coastal environment– whether that means kayaking in our rivers, bays, and estuaries; biking along an expanded greenbelt; choosing their seafood only from sustainable fisheries; or taking a trip to Coney Island for a day at the beach and a visit to the New York Aquarium to learn about marine wilderness around the globe and especially right here in this beautiful city of islands.

Scientists are just beginning to learn about deep-sea coral ecosystems, their importance to the healthy functioning of oceans, and their value to humans (including applications to biomedical research). One thing we are certain of, however, is that they face serious threats from human activity such as indiscriminate fishing practices. One pass of a bottom trawl or longline can destroy a fragile coral community that may be thousands of years old and could take just as long to recover.

An alewife river herring seen in a freshwater stream off the Peconic Bay in the South Shore of Long Island. © Keith Ellenbogen
An alewife river herring seen in a freshwater stream off the Peconic Bay in the South Shore of Long Island. © Keith Ellenbogen

Earlier this year, WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) supporters submitted 13,000 letters, petitions, and drawings asking the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council to protect coral communities in the mid-Atlantic, including those found in the Hudson Canyon. The Council is poised to make a precedent-setting decision on June 10 to protect sensitive deep-sea corals from New York to North Carolina.

The vulnerability of local corals has led WCS and scientists from our seascape program to begin working with fishermen, concerned citizens, and conservation partners to seek their protection. The ancient coral communities found in Hudson Canyon and beyond deserve our care and protection for the continued viability of some of our most important marine species and the local industries that depend on them.

A pod of dolphins swimming 10 miles off the South Shore of Long Island in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by © Keith Ellenbogen
A pod of dolphins swimming 10 miles off the South Shore of Long Island in the Atlantic Ocean. Photo by © Keith Ellenbogen

If approved by the Council, the new zones for protection for the Hudson Canyon – developed through consensus by NOAA, scientists, fishing industry representatives, and conservation NGOs to account for economic and environmental concerns – would protect 607 square kilometers of seafloor habitat, including 397 square kilometers of coral habitat.

Encouraging New Yorkers to become informed stewards of their seascape – and the marvelous array of marine wildlife found there – will help ensure the protection of the Hudson Canyon and other important marine ecosystems. It likewise honors what those of us who make our living from a desire to understand our oceans have long believed: that what lies beneath the surface of New York’s salty sea is as impressive as the iconic skyline rising above it.

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Jon Forrest Dohlin is WCS Vice President and Director of the New York Aquarium.