Canada starts project to protect coral reef

In the frigid waters off Canada’s western coast, nestled within a narrow channel surrounded by fjords, exists a coral reef that defies expectations, described by scientists as a phenomenon that shouldn’t exist. This northernmost Pacific Ocean reef provides researchers with fresh insights into the resilience and unpredictability of deep-sea ecosystems.

For generations, members of the Kitasoo Xai’xais and Heiltsuk First Nations, residing in the Central Coast region of British Columbia, had observed large gatherings of rockfish in a fjord system. In 2021, in collaboration with the Canadian government, researchers and the First Nations deployed a remote-controlled submersible to explore the depths of the Finlayson Channel, approximately 300 miles northwest of Vancouver.

During one of their final dives, the team made a remarkable discovery, which has only recently been disclosed. Cherisse Du Preez, head of the deep-sea ecology program at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, recalls the moment when they encountered living corals, initially met with disbelief, followed by a flood of emotions as they witnessed expansive coral fields illuminated by the submersible’s lights, displaying vibrant hues of pink, yellow, and purple.

In the subsequent year, the team mapped the Lophelia Reef, named q̓áuc̓íwísuxv by the Kitasoo Xai’xais and Heiltsuk First Nations, marking Canada’s sole known living coral reef. This discovery underscores the significance of Indigenous knowledge guiding researchers to areas of scientific and historical importance, echoing past instances such as Inuk oral historian Louie Kamookak’s contribution to locating Sir John Franklin’s lost ships.

The lophelia corals comprising the reef are typical of deep-sea habitats in the Atlantic and certain areas of the Pacific. The team speculates that the reef’s unique location within a fjord with exceptionally cold water contributes to its thriving condition, aided by water column mixing in the ridge where the coral resides.

Despite efforts to protect the area, the vulnerability of lophelia coral to climate change stressors like warming waters and increased acidity poses significant challenges. However, researchers remain hopeful that by regulating human activities in the vicinity, they can enhance the reef’s resilience and potentially facilitate its expansion to new areas.

In addition to the lophelia coral, the discovery of a sizable glass sponge reef highlights the extraordinary biodiversity of the deep ocean, where unexpected encounters and interactions between species occur, offering scientists an unparalleled glimpse into the complexities of marine ecosystems.

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