Long ago, the retreat of ice age glaciers carved one of the largest underwater canyons in the world into the seabed about a hundred miles from New York City. Now hundreds of species live there, including sperm whales, sea turtles and deep-sea corals.
On Wednesday, the Biden administration announced that it intends to designate the area a new national marine sanctuary, which would give it some of the same protections afforded to national parks.
The Hudson Canyon - spanning nearly 71/2 miles wide and more than two miles deep in some places - rivals the Grand Canyon in scale. The push to add it to the National Marine Sanctuary System reflects the Biden administration’s broader effort to safeguard critical habitat threatened by development and global warming by conserving 30% of the nation’s land and waters by 2030.
“A sanctuary near one of the most densely populated areas of the Northeast U.S. would connect diverse communities across the region to the ocean and the canyon in new and different ways,” said Rick Spinrad, who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in a statement. “As someone who grew up in New York City and went on to a career in ocean science, I am excited about how this amazing underwater environment can inspire shared interest in conserving our ocean.”
Wednesday marks World Oceans Day, when global leaders often make commitments to protect areas off their nation’s shores. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland also plans to sign an order to phase out the sale of single-use plastic products in national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands by 2032. The measure directs the department to find compostable or biodegradable alternatives - an effort to reduce the federal government’s contribution to the 14 million tons of plastic that wind up in the ocean every year.
Some national parks banned the sale of plastic water bottles in 2011 to reduce pollution. Despite evidence that the prohibition was working, the Trump administration ended it six years later.
Environmentalists applauded the Biden administration’s decision.
“The Department of Interior’s single-use plastic ban will curb millions of pounds of unnecessary disposable plastic,” said Christy Leavitt, plastics campaign director for the ocean conservation group Oceana.
The administration will also announce plans Wednesday to craft an ocean climate action plan with guidance on renewable energy development, zero-emission shipping and other ocean-related efforts to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
Biden officials have not determined the size of the proposed marine sanctuary, which was nominated for protection by the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium in 2016. The contours of the sanctuary - including what it will be called and the types of activities permitted there - will be subject to a public comment period, during which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will seek input from conservationists, the fishing industry and offshore energy developers, among others.
Before the plan becomes final, the agency must conduct an environmental impact analysis and write a management plan, which could take a year or more to complete.
The naturalist William Beebe was the first to explore the Hudson Canyon during his 1925 deep-sea voyage in the Bathysphere, the first crewed submersible. Since 2000, scientists have worked to map the canyon’s sea floor, document the species that live within its steep slopes and investigate the seeps that release methane gas from the seafloor.
Their explorations have revealed an ecosystem teeming with wildlife.
Researchers have found at least 200 species of fish, including Atlantic bluefin tuna and dusky sharks, within the canyon. During the summer months, endangered sperm whales, bottlenose dolphins and threatened loggerhead sea turtles have been spotted in the canyon. Along its steep walls, rocky outcrops and boulders host anemones, sponges and slow-growing coral colonies, some of which are thought to be more than 1,000 years old.
Humans have also made their mark.
The canyon holds shipwrecks and deep-sea communications cables that connect the East Coast to the rest of the world. Massive container ships traveling to the Port of New York and New Jersey pass through its waters, as do whale-watching vessels and commercial fishing boats. Until the 1990s, when the region changed its dumping practices, the canyon suffered from exposure to sewage flows and toxins from New York City and northern New Jersey. Canyon explorers have documented corals covered in plastic and other debris.
Supporters of designating the Hudson Canyon as a marine sanctuary say it would help fund new research and support the local economy by ensuring the survival of fish, scallops and squid that keep fisheries in business.
In its nominating proposal to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Wildlife Conservation Society said the canyon “remains a mysterious deep ocean wilderness.”
“Distance from land and the depth of the Canyon have resulted in limited human presence thereby protecting, in large part, its ecological integrity,” it wrote.
The group has asked that the canyon be permanently protected from oil, gas and mineral development, but did not request restrictions on fishing. And though developers are planning to build commercial wind farms off the Atlantic coast, the canyon’s distance from shore and extreme depths makes it an undesirable location for industrial wind projects.
John Calvelli, the society’s executive vice president for public affairs, said in an interview that the canyon has the potential to become a haven for ocean creatures threatened by climate change.
“The thinking is this area could really become a refuge for species that need colder water,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re protecting it for the future.”
An Alaska Native tribe on a remote island north of the Aleutians also celebrated on Wednesday that its coastal waters in the eastern Bering Sea have been nominated for consideration as a future marine sanctuary.
The Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, a federally recognized tribe, nominated Alagum Kanuux (Heart of the Ocean), an area off the Pribilof Islands that is home to more than half the world’s population of fur seals, as well as Steller sea lions, and numerous birds.
The shores of the Pribilof Islands have been buffeted by ocean plastics and conservation groups participate in regular cleanups that yields tens of thousands of pounds of discarded fishing gear and other debris.
- - -
The Washington Post’s Josh Partlow contributed to this report.