B.C. corals could win some protection through planning for the Pacific North Coast Integrated Management Area, a DFO region that takes in the Queen Charlotte Basin, or as part of a Marine Protected Area under the federal Oceans Act.
Such areas are popping up around the globe as means of protecting ocean life, birds and marine mammals. Canada has seven. The newest is the Bowie Seamount, an underwater mountain about 200 kilometres west of the Queen Charlotte Islands that was designated last year and that's crawling with crabs and starfish and supports dozens of species of fish as well as birds and marine mammals.
But it can take years to hammer out agreements for new protected areas, or for management schemes that balance environmental, commercial and aboriginal interests.
Market forces could work in corals' favour. Major retail chains in Canada, the United States and the European Union are launching sustainable seafood purchasing programs or demanding certification from their suppliers. Certification typically requires evidence of a healthy ecosystem, including non-target species such as deep-sea corals. Canadian fisheries are scrambling to comply.
Ask the scientists on board Cape Flattery what it would take to get a complete picture of deep-sea corals along the Pacific Coast, and they start throwing out numbers: $50-million or $60-million. Weeks, if not months, on the water. And more subs, definitely more subs.
A day after Mr. Workman's dive, the ship pulls into Prince Rupert, allowing journalists to disembark and crew members to rush ashore for cigarettes and souvenirs before heading out to Dixon Entrance for more dives. Cape Flattery, at 186 feet and with three subs on its back deck, takes up nearly the entire length of the dock and draws a crowd, including a camera-toting tourist whose pockets are jammed with brochures touting local attractions.
"You folks looking for whales?" he asks, shouting down from the wharf.
Nope, someone responds. Coral. Deep-sea coral.
The tourist caps his camera, looks bemused. He didn't know we had that here.
The Finding Coral subs were made by North Vancouver-based Nuytco Research Ltd., and included two solo Deep Workers and the Aquarius, a larger sub that can accommodate three people, including a pilot. Expedition members had training sessions in Burrard Inlet before the trip.
Pilots use thrusters to direct the subs, which are battery-powered. Inside the Aquarius, the sound of the thrusters was reminiscent of that of an electric sewing machine.
Trip scientists, most of whom were seasoned scuba divers, said the subs were straightforward to operate and provided a direct, thrilling window to deep-sea life without worries over decompression. The typical diving uniform was jeans, sweaters and stocking feet.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada used to have a manned submersible for research. Between 1973 and 1986, the Pisces IV logged hundreds of research trips in the Pacific, Atlantic and Arctic oceans. As part of budget cuts, the Pisces IV was replaced with a remotely operated vehicle, or ROV.
Since 1995, the ROV - dubbed ROPOS, the remotely operated platform for ocean sciences - has been run by the Canadian Scientific Submersible Society, a non-profit group that maintains the system and contracts it out to universities and government agencies.
Last year, a ROPOS expedition collected data on deep-sea corals and glass sponge reefs off the B.C. coast.
ROV fans say the systems provide superior data collection (because ROVs can work longer hours at greater depths), can be launched in rougher weather, and do not pose the safety concerns associated with manned submersibles.
MARINE BIOLOGY 101
A deep-sea coral is a colony of tiny animals, called polyps. Related to sea anemones and jellyfish, polyps are equipped with tentacles that grab nutrients from ocean water.
Unlike tropical corals - which grow in shallow, warm water and get most of their energy from the sun - deep-sea corals live in the cold depths and capture nutrients from the water that surrounds them. They serve as habitat for fish and other marine life.
Partly because of improved technology that has allowed researchers to study the creatures, deep-sea corals have been getting more research interest in recent years. In 2004, the UN Environment Programme highlighted deep-sea corals as a global conservation challenge, saying the creatures were more widespread than previously thought and thrive in waters off the coasts of more than 40 countries, including Spain and Suriname.
Deep-sea corals grow at about one-tenth the rate of tropical corals.
Sources: United Nations Environment Programme, Living Oceans Society