The Grand Canyon of the Atlantic Ocean

Deep-sea octocoral, Anthomastus sp. (Photo: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research)

Hudson Canyon is a vast underwater gorge and ecological hotspot with deep-sea corals that is being considered for National Marine Sanctuary status. Living on Earth’s Jenni Doering called Merry Camhi, New York Seascape Director at the Wildlife Conservation Society and New York Aquarium, to learn more about what protecting the Hudson Canyon could mean. .


CURWOOD: Cruise southeast of New York and about 100 miles away you’ll cruise over an underwater chasm far deeper than the Grand Canyon. Descending ten thousand feet into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean, Hudson Canyon is a vast gorge and ecological hotspot that is being considered for National Marine Sanctuary status. This would make it the first-ever marine sanctuary off New York and New Jersey. Jenni Doering of Living on Earth called Merry Camhi, New York Seascape Director at the Wildlife Conservation Society and New York Aquarium, to find out more.

CAMHI: The canyon itself is the drowned bed of the Hudson River, isn’t it? So he actually dug a channel and a deep crack in the side of the shelf. And it is there that we have a very complex, fragile, biodiverse and productive ecosystem that is characterized by many different types of habitats and a multitude of species. This is what we like to call an ecological hotspot, it is widely recognized by scientists as a hotspot, due to the great biodiversity found there, and the incredible productivity and diversity of the ecosystem.

DOERING: Wow. Yeah, I can imagine. I mean, I think in biology there’s this idea that when you have different environments, you tend to have a lot of different species that can benefit from those environments and a mixture of environments. And in this case it is, I believe, thousands of feet deep and 350 miles long. So what are the species that can be found in this ecological hotspot?

Proposed area for Hudson Canyon National Marine Sanctuary. (Picture: NOAA)

CAMHI: Yeah, so you’re right, the diversity of habitats means that we also have a diversity of wildlife that it can support. And we have it all, from the surface, an amazing diversity of pelagic seabirds that spend most of their time offshore. I think we have almost 20 different seabirds that have been identified there. We have 17 species of marine mammals, mostly large whales, like sperm whales, as well as many types of dolphins, right. There are over 200 species of fish and hundreds of species of invertebrates. Four of the seven sea turtles in the world also pass through or depend in some way on the riches of the canyon. And to top it off at the very bottom we have cold water corals.

DOERING: It certainly sounds like an amazing place. And there are some like you who think it’s worth protecting. So tell me about this proposal to make Hudson Canyon a national marine sanctuary. How did we get there ?

CAMHI: Well, I think part of it is just recognizing that here in these waters, right here in our own backyard, we have this incredible treasure. The Hudson Canyon is the largest underwater canyon on the American Atlantic coast. And it is also one of the largest underwater canyons in the world. This is important for our local fisheries, there are commercial and recreational fisheries that deserve to be protected. There are all these species, many of which are endangered and threatened, some sea turtles, marine mammals, sharks and a few other fish, that depend on the canyon. And whether it’s seasonal or they live there full time, they need that canyon ecosystem. And because we are a wildlife conservation organization, we decided it was worth pursuing as a National Marine Sanctuary.

An octopus, a starfish, bivalves and dozens of corals all share the same overhang. (Image: NOAA/BOEM/USGS)

DOERING: So what does that mean, what does that mean? You know, I mean, we have national parks, we have national monuments, we have wildlife refuges. What kind of protection does a National Marine Sanctuary offer a place like Hudson Canyon?

CAMHI: One of the main benefits that we think would happen for Hudson Canyon is that it would exclude oil, gas and mineral extraction. This is one of the most important conservation benefits. Many other uses are permitted as long as they are compatible with the aims and objectives of a national marine sanctuary.

DOERING: Uses like continuous fishing or wind development, offshore wind?

CAMHI: Yes, so fishing takes place in about 98% of the sanctuary area, as part of the sanctuary program. And currently, there are 15 national marine sanctuaries and none right here in the middle of the Atlantic. So we would be the first sanctuary here in the New York Bight and in our region and the first underwater canyon here on the Atlantic coast to be protected. It allows fishing, as long as the fishing is sustainable. WCS believes that the fishery should continue under the current authorities that manage the fishery, which is the Fisheries Service, not the National Marine Sanctuary program. The wind is also a problem here in New York, isn’t it? So we know we have phenomenal wind resources in New York. And there’s tremendous pressure from the states of New York and New Jersey to develop these offshore wind capacities here to help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. So WCS supports offshore wind, as long as it is done in a way that minimizes the impact on wildlife and wild places, our habitats.

DOERING: Now, we’ve covered the endangered North Atlantic right whales a lot on this show. And I’m curious if, you know, on their journey from, I’m thinking off the coast of Georgia, where they have their young, to the coast of Massachusetts and Maine. Do they stop at Hudson Canyon on the way?

CAMHI: Yeah, so actually many large whales, including the North Atlantic right whale, pass through New York waters on their way to their feeding grounds, where they spend the summer, and can also return to the south. as they head towards their birthplace. One of the ways that we as the Wildlife Conservation Society are able to document this is that we have sonobuoys that are located in and around New York Harbor and on the shelf that can actually listen to calls whales as they are either feeding in the area or passing through the area.

Aerial view of Hudson Canyon. The transect shows the width and relief of the canyon with the Empire State Building to scale. (Image: NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research.)


CAMHI: I think the most common sounds we hear are from humpback whales.


CAMHI: Humpback whales are increasingly present in our local waters. Our waters are getting cleaner. The Clean Water Act of 50 years ago really made a difference. Because, as we all know, many of us know, the Hudson River was a source of massive amounts of sewage and pollution that flowed directly into the canyon. And with it, as our waters in rivers and coastal waters get cleaner, so does the health of the canyon. With that come resources like menhaden and other forage species that bring predatory animals, like sharks and whales, etc., to our local waters. And so we saw an increase in the number of whales, even within sight of New York, right in the harbor.

DOERING: So it looks like an amazing place. And I would love to visit if I could, although I’m not certified in diving. And I think even the best divers certainly can’t go two miles deep. [LAUGHS] But, but I’m, I’m wondering, you know, with such a special place, we often have to worry these days, or we have to wonder these days, how it’s going to be affected because of the currency climate. And you know, the oceans are getting warmer, they’re also taking in a lot of CO2 that we’re putting back into the atmosphere, so they’re getting more acidic. So I wonder what effect this might have on this wonderful ecosystem and on Hudson Canyon?

A pair of mating Deep Sea Red Crabs rest on a ledge of a canyon wall. (Image: NOAA/BOEM/USGS)

CAMHI: Well, you ask a very interesting question: how will climate change and warming oceans affect particular places like underwater canyons? And there’s still a lot of uncertainty about that. We know this will have an impact, we are already seeing changes in species distribution occurring in and around the canyon near the surface as the waters warm, right? Many of our southernmost species are beginning to move north as the waters warm. Also, we know that warming can change the acidity of these ecosystems, it can change the amount of oxygen that’s in the water, and that changes the dynamics of currents and upwellings, and so on. in these canyons. How this will affect our wildlife, we don’t really know. And one of the reasons we really want to have a national marine sanctuary here in Hudson Canyon is because often sanctuaries serve, can serve as sentinel sites. They attract research and exploration and can actually help establish long-term ecological monitoring there that will help us understand what the impacts are on deep-sea ecosystems, and even how they will affect the resilience of coastal species and coastal communities by examining these gradual changes and tracking them over time. So that’s one of the reasons we’re really happy to see the government supporting the National Marine Sanctuary here, hopefully they’ll establish a long-term monitoring sentinel site.

CURWOOD: Merry Camhi, New York City Seascape Director at the Wildlife Conservation Society, speaks with Living on Earth’s Jenni Doering.


Learn more about Hudson Canyon’s proposed designation as a National Marine Sanctuary

Learn more about Hudson Canyon from WCS

About Merry Camhi

About Edward Fries

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