Coral reef that 'shouldn't exist' thrives off B.C.'s Pacific Ocean, biologist says

VANCOUVER — It started with a tip from the local First Nation of a "bump on the sea floor" where the fish liked to be and led to the discovery of Canada’s only known live coral reef.

Deep sea ecologist Cherisse Du Preez worked with the Kitasoo Xai’xais and Heiltsuk First Nations and began searching for the Lophelia coral reef in 2021, taking a remote controlled submersible deep into the ocean in Finlayson Channel, about 500 kilometres northwest of Vancouver.

On what was to be their team’s last dive for the expedition they found it, a "thriving, beautiful," ecosystem about 200 metres down.

“You light it up and you realize you’re the first person to ever see this, beautiful pinks and purples and yellows, crevasses, mounts. And once you see past the corals, you realize that there are other animals on them," said Du Preez, who’s the head of the deepsea ecology program with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

“Then the movement starts and you start to see the eels and the octopus or the rock fish swimming in and out. And even when we tilt the camera up you can see the schools of fish on top. Everywhere you look is life.”

All the science and rationale in the world says the coral reef shouldn’t exist here, but the First Nations knew something was there, said De Preez.

The Fisheries Department announced last week it had closed the area on B.C.’s central coast over the coral reef to all commercial and recreational bottom−contact fisheries, including mid−water trawl.

The department said the indefinite closure is "based on a significant scientific discovery as this site, while small, is a globally unique reef that is highly susceptible to damage, most notably from fishing gear.

The reef is the most northern known coral reef in the entire Pacific Ocean, it said.

Du Preez said she clearly recalls the excitement when they first discovered the reef.

“It’s quite remarkable to visit these places to get the visuals and to feel that paradox of it’s far away, it’s another world, but it’s our world,” said Du Preez.

Mike Reid, fisheries manager for Heiltsuk Nation’s integrated resource management department, said his nation always knew that something was supporting the fish in the area, but they didn’t know what it was.

“Lophelia reef is very important to the ecosystem, to the biodiversity of that specific area, it adds to the overall health of that area,” said Reid.

The reef provides habitat and refuge for animals, allowing for the creation of colonies of fish and other creatures, Du Preez said.

“This coral reef has valleys and mounds … the mounds provide nursery grounds. So, you have all the schools of tiny fish living and hiding from the animals hunting them.

”Then you have large fish, we have species that are of special concern and endangered using this coral reef as food and shelter, as habitat,” said Du Preez.

Du Preez said they found dead coral around the reef, which could be the fault of climate change.

“It’s a very big concern, and that’s one of the reasons why it’s so important to stop fishing in this area is because we have to take away all the stresses we can to give this reef an opportunity to survive the changes that we can’t control."

A one−degree change in temperature could be devastating for the reef, she said.

Leri Davies, spokeswoman for Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s Pacific Region, said fishery officers from their Conservation and Protection Branch routinely patrol marine refuges, marine protected areas and closed areas.

“We use a variety of intelligence−led enforcement methods including air, ocean, river, and ground surveillance, as well as night and covert patrols, to actively monitor fishing activities in all sectors and ensure compliance with the laws,” said a Fisheries Department statement.

Du Preez said the Canada’s Pacific coast is "globally unique," with nature and wildlife not found anywhere else.

It gives us the ability to have so much life in our deep sea and we are so fortunate, she said.

“We are so spoiled on our coast with our deep sea and I hope that through media like this Canadians start to feel that the deep sea is as Canadian as the Rocky Mountains.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 12, 2024.

Nono Shen, The Canadian Press

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