Greenpeace finds deep-sea corals on Shell’s Arctic drill site

Greenpeace scientists have identified a dense patch of deep-sea corals in a lease area of the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea off Alaska’s northwest coast, where Royal Dutch Shell is slated to start drilling.

Researchers for the advocacy group, which have been lobbying to block drilling in the Arctic this summer, went down about 150 feet in a submarine this week to take samples. During the dives, they found significant concentrations of the soft coral Gersemia rubiformis , which is commonly known as sea raspberry.

Shell is awaiting final permits to begin drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas and has predicted it could start as early as next week.

In its scientific report on the Chukchi’s benthic, or seafloor, environment, Shell identified corals as occupying less than 4 percent of the habitat.

But Greenpeace marine biologist John Hocevar described the corals as the “third most abundant” species he sampled, after two types of sea stars. He conducted the mission in a leased area about 10 miles from one of the company’s vessels.

Shell’s Alaska science team lead, Michael Macrander, said that the corals are patchily distributed in some areas, so the Greenpeace expedition might have encountered a higher concentration than normal.

He added that he believes the environmental group had decided to “suddenly focus on coral because the public has an immediate knee-jerk reaction” to the word.

He said any drilling effects on the corals, such as dropping anchors on them, would be “local and ephemeral” and that most of the corals could recover within six months to a year.

The decisions by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management “regarding Shell’s Chukchi exploration plan were based on years of comprehensive study and analyses . . . including seafloor habitats,” said BOEM spokeswoman Theresa Eisenman. “These environmental studies, which included the development of information regarding the presence of Arctic corals, were specifically considered . . .”

But Hocevar said that soft corals provide key habitat for many marine species, particularly larval fish, and that there is not much else providing structure on the seafloor.

“It’s not like you’ve got rocks and reefs,” he said. “Deep-sea corals are cold-water, slow-growing and long-lived animals and highly vulnerable to disturbance.”

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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