Greenpeace submarine research at Shell’s proposed drill site in the Chukchi Sea has collected the first coral specimen from the region.
With a Shell vessel nearby, Greenpeace marine biologist and submarine pilot John Hocevar collected two specimens of Gersemia rubiformis coral, also known as sea raspberry, and recorded video to document the presence of large numbers of corals during transects of the sea floor.
The corals were the third most common type of visible marine life on the bottom, after brittle stars and basket stars. While quantitative analysis of video transects will take time to complete, Hocevar estimates coral density is on the order of 0.5 per square meter. This is considerably higher than most areas of the ocean; coral density at study sites in the Weddell Sea, Atlantic Canada and Norway was less than 0.2 per square meter.
“Discovering abundant corals in the Arctic waters right where Shell plans to drill this summer shows just how little is known about this fragile and unique region. Melting sea ice is not an invitation for offshore drilling in the Arctic, it’s a warning that this pristine environment should be protected and dedicated to science,” said John Hocevar, marine biologist and oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA.
Although Shell told the Washington Post that the company knew about corals at the Chukchi drill site, the environmental impact statement for its drilling program does not mention them. Deep sea corals provide critical habitat for fish and other marine life, and have been prioritized for protection by the United Nations and the U.S. government. Corals are very long-lived, slow growing creatures that are highly vulnerable to disturbance.
“Why doesn’t the environmental impact statement for Shell’s Chukchi drilling program adequately discuss Arctic corals at the proposed drilling location? What else has the public not been told about the environment of the proposed drill sites?” said Rick Steiner, retired University of Alaska professor of conservation biology.
The Greenpeace ship Esperanza is in the Arctic with a Waitt Institute submarine to study the marine habitats threatened by Shell’s planned drilling program. The expedition is part of the environmental organization’s Save the Arctic campaign, in which more than 1 million people have joined together to call for a global sanctuary in the high Arctic, and a ban on offshore drilling and unsustainable fishing in Arctic waters.