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The Bering Sea is one of the wildest regions in the world and the source of over half the seafood caught in the United States. Spanning more than 770,000 square miles between western Alaska and Russia’s Siberian coast, these rich waters gave rise to the native Alaskan communities throughout the region, some of which date back 10,000 years.

Although Alaska's billion-dollar fishing industry is one of the most closely monitored in the world, some of its most vulnerable marine habitats are not protected from fishing gear impacts. Additionally, the annual harvest of 2 million tons of fish is changing the ecosystem and greatly reducing the food supply for marine mammals and birds as well the Native communities and small-boat fishermen who depend on a healthy marine ecosystem for their survival. Fragile coral and sponge habitat, essential for fish and other marine life, is being damaged and destroyed by bottom-contact fishing gear.

Public stakeholders, tribal groups and governments, and seafood businesses have come together to demonstrate their shared interest in protecting the "Bering Sea Gold" that belongs to us all.

Protecting Bering

Through the creation of properly selected and managed Marine Protected Areas – including a few fully protected marine reserves – we can help protect the very ecosystem that produces so much seafood.

In the Bering Sea, an area called the “Green Belt” is highly productive and attracts fish, birds, marine mammals and fishermen year after year. The Green Belt is a vast area about the size of California, yet no portion of the Green Belt is off-limits to fishing. Zhemchug and Pribliof Canyons – both larger than the Grand Canyon - are carved into the Green Belt zone where they help fuel high productivity and provide habitat for, corals, crab, skates, rockfish, and sponges and other marine life.

Given how little we understand about deep sea ecosystems, it is extremely risky not to set aside portions of the Green Belt as a buffer against uncertainty and climate change, as well as creating a place of refuge and research on human-caused impacts.

Beginning with an historic 2007 expedition into Zhemchug and Pribilof Canyons (two of the five canyons in the eastern Bering Sea), Greenpeace partnered with government and independent scientists to provide the best available science to inform the decisions of policy makers. In the summer of 2012, Greenpeace's largest ship, the Esperanza, set sail for the Bering Sea once again. Our submarines allowed researchers to dive into the Bering Sea canyons and bring back more scientific data to increase our understanding of these special places. Since that time, government scientists created a computer model to predict where coral might be located in the Bering Sea and in 2014 they dropped cameras in 250 locations in order to verify their model. They found that about one-third of all the cold-water corals in the Bering Sea are in and adjacent to Pribilof Canyon.

With this new and compelling scientific evidence, we are calling on fishery managers and the National Marine Fishery Service to identify and implement measures to protect a portion of the Green Belt including two of the Bering Sea canyons. Join us to urge decision makers to get this long overdue job done before it's too late.

We must bring balance to the Bering Sea to ensure its ongoing vitality and productivity into the future.

The Skies

Part of the Sea's Ecosystem

The Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska is home to a wide variety of birds. Large birds like the short tailed albatross and smaller birds such as the rock sandpiper play an important role in this delicate ecosystem. Species found here include Albatross, Horned Puffin, Arctic Tern, and the Redfaced Cormorant. The Pribilof Islands are particularly spectacular, as they are the summer breeding grounds for over two million sea birds.

The Surface

Excessive Fish Removals Hurt Larger Species

Since the 1960s, Bering Sea pinniped populations have steeply declined, including endangered Steller sea lions, northern fur seals, and Pacific harbor seals. Steller sea lion populations in the Bering Sea and western Gulf of Alaska have dropped by about 80 percent. In parts of the Gulf of Alaska, harbor seal numbers have dropped by as much as 90 percent. The Pribilof Island population of Northern fur seals (the population nearest to the Bering Sea canyons) are listed as "depleted" under the Marine Mammals Protection Act, and that population has fallen by more than 50% since the 1950's.

Trawl closures put in place in some areas of sea lion critical habitat have helped that species in a portion of its range. Unfortunately, the North Pacific Council opened back up large areas to trawling in 2014, so additional protection measures are needed. Other marine mammals participating in this food web include the sperm whales, fin whales, minke whales, blue whales, Dall’s porpoises, humpback whales, and critically endangered north Pacific right whales.

The Shallows

Going Under the Surface in Submarines

Greenpeace's 2007 expedition was the first in situ exploration of Zhemchug Canyon of any kind, and the first manned submersible exploration of Pribilof Canyon. We used an ROV and two Deep Worker mini-submarines to explore the two canyons.

Watch the video of the team testing out the submarines for the first time, and share in Timo's awe at seeing bioluminescent comb jellies at 1,000 feet below the surface.

Bering Voices

The Bering Sea is home to native communities that have fished these waters for nearly 10,000 years. The communities on St. Paul and St. George Islands (collectively referred to as the Pribilof Islands) have deep cultural and heritage connections to the wildlife in the Green Belt which includes subsistence harvesting, in addition to the commercial harvesting and processing jobs that contribute to the cash economy in these remote villages. But as industrial-sized fishing and processing vessels harvest billions of fish from the Green Belt, local Alaskans are finding it harder to locate their subsistence foods, a shortage which threatens their very culture.


Take a Submarine Adventure!

Have you ever wanted to drive a submarine? Or descend down deep under the sea to take a look at the amazing creatures living there? Come dive with us on an expedition into the Grand Canyons of the Bering Sea! Discover a new species and watch out for squid attacks! Click "play" to get started. As pilot, you will be asked to click on links within the video to choose your adventure path.

Deep Sea Canyons

Unique, Isolated Habitats

Here you will find some of the largest and deepest submarine canyons in the world—notably the stunning Zhemchug Canyon, which is wider and deeper than the Grand Canyon. An area known as Zhemchug Ridges was found to be carpeted with corals and sponges, with fish eggs and juvenile fish nestled among them. These unique habitats are refugia for cold-water loving species, which will become important with a warming ocean brought about by global warming. In un-trawled areas, there could be species living in the depths of the canyons that are found nowhere else on earth. In fact, Greenpeace found new species during our 2012 expedition.

During those same submarine surveys, Greenpeace found tracks from trawlers in these deep-water habitats, wide swaths that were raked and ancient corals and sponges - that are integral to life – destroyed. The 2014 camera research by the National Marine Fishery Service also found fishing impacts, about 8.5% of all sea whips (a type of coral), for instance, were damaged or broken off. Trawlers drag nets across the canyon walls, uprooting fragile corals and sponges that provide habitat for a host of other species. Corals are slow-growing species and some can be hundreds or even thousands of years old.

New Discoveries

Previously Unknown Life

In our explorations, Greenpeace found at least twelve species of coral, and at least eighteen species of sponge. Many of the corals and sponges we found were previously unrecorded in the Bering Sea or at least unknown that far north, a testament to both how little is known about the deep sea and how unique these canyons are. Unfortunately, we also found considerable evidence of damage from fishing - broken corals and long trenches dug into the seafloor.

Aaptos kanuux

Greenpeace discovered a new species of sponge in the submarine canyons of the Bering Sea. See the new species for yourself! Dive into our Aaptos kanuux video of the new sponge and other species living in the depths of the Bering Sea.

The Future

As a result of our campaign and an unprecedented amount of public engagement in Alaska's fishery policy process the Green Belt and Bering Sea canyons are finally being considered for protection and valuable new science is informing the decisions.

Over 200,000 people, hundreds of business including many of our nation’s largest supermarkets and seafood buyers - including Safeway, Costco, Hy-Vee, Ahold USA, SuperValu, Trader Joe’s, Giant Eagle, Wegmans, and Bon Appétit have written letters. Together with indigenous groups and a broad coalition of environmental groups they have urged the North Pacific Council to address conservation in the canyons and Green Belt. New science from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration highlights Pribilof Canyon and its adjacent slope, a relatively small portion of the Green Belt, for containing sixty percent of the coral habitat in the Bering Sea.

Soon, Alaska fishery managers will decide whether or not to create protections for the canyons and Green Belt. We take billions of pounds of fish from here each year. We also need some places where we protect the ocean from the impacts of such intense industrial fishing, to ensure a healthy and productive ecosystem long into the future.

Greetings from...