Protect the Bering Sea Canyons

I love the sea. And the things in it. And art. And when those things come together it makes for some of my favourite projects, especially if I can maybe do some good while I’m at it. So when Creative Action Network came to me to make a See America poster to raise awareness of the Bering Sea Canyons and Greenpeace’s campaign to protect them, I was pretty chuffed to have been asked. However, as is often the case with what I guess one might call my ‘creative process’ (it’s such a shame that term has become so loaded with pretension), I wasn’t entirely sure where to start.

I wanted to produce a piece that would sit well with my other See America works, mostly because my best friend has the collection displayed in her living room and wants them all to match, but I also wanted to go for something charming and endearing, to bring out empathy for the region and its inhabitants. And I like cute stuff.

Some of my other See America pieces for Creative Action Network

So what’s the Bering Sea like and what delightful creatures call it home? Well, for a start, it’s really quite big. As Douglas Adams once said, ‘you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts’ compared to the Bering Sea. It covers over 770,000 square miles between the Alaskan and Siberian coasts and is the source of over half the seafood caught in the US, contributing an estimated $6.7 billion to the U.S. economy and providing thousands of jobs, as well as supporting native Alaskan communities, some of which have been feeding themselves from these waters for 10,000 years. But it’s not just that its surface covers an area of about two hundred and eighty million football pitches, there’s rather a lot going on under the waves.

In the depths of the Bering Sea are the Bering Sea Canyons, or Grand Canyons of the Sea, a unique environment in which some of the largest and deepest marine canyons are found, including the rather impressive Pribilof and Zhemchug Canyons, either of which the Grand Canyon would cheerfully fit inside of. 

It is the uniqueness of this region that makes it home to such a diverse range of marine life, much of which we didn’t even know was there until recently. On their 2007 and 2012 expeditions, Greenpeace found new species, as well as species of coral and sponge that had never been seen so far north before. These deep sea corals and sponges form the basis of the habitat for juvenile fish, crabs, and many other creatures, with different species being found throughout the water column, from fascinating bioluminescent comb jellies at a thousand feet down, to many species of marine mammal including the critically endangered north Pacific right whale, and the endangered Stellar Sea Lion.

Deep sea coral. And you thought coral only lived in popular tourist destinations. (public domain)

The surface and the skies above are populated by a huge variety of birds, including albatross, terns and cormorants, with the Pribilof Islands providing breeding grounds for more than two million sea birds. That’s a lot of birds. And amongst them I found my inspiration. The Bering Sea is home to both the tufted and the horned puffin, which are just about as adorable as they come. The only obvious drawback is that puffins are known as the clowns of the sea, but I decided that it probably wasn’t fair to hold that against them. So, after a few preliminary sketches, I settled on an image that in my mind will forever be called ‘Jazz Hands Puffin’.

Layout sketch I made at 2am.

Jazz Hands!

You can buy prints from Creative Action Network here, as part of the See America Campaign in association with America’s National Parks, or if you prefer a version without text, you can buy that from Society 6 here, along with all sorts of wonderful art gifts for your spending pleasure. If you’re in the UK or Europe and don’t want to pay shipping from the US, just drop me a line and I can send you signed giclee prints direct from the UK.

But why do we need to raise awareness? It’s a phrase you hear a lot, seemingly most often in connection with things that everyone is already aware of. And you probably are already aware of the Bering Sea (apparently it’s on TV). But the takeaway here is that every part of this fragile ecosystem is dependent of every other, and right now fishing gear is destroying sponge and coral on the canyon walls that provides essential habitats for fish and other marine life. It’s not just about saving cute dolphins, it’s about the Bering Sea fishing industry collapsing when there’s no longer a suitable environment for the fish to live and breed. That’ll be a huge blow to the US economy, to Joe Public who expects to eat fish whenever he wants, and to Native communities who depend on the Bering Sea as their main source of food. Plus not really that great in terms of knock on effects all the way up the food chain, right up to those endangered whales and sea lions, and a lot of hungry puffins.

We have better maps of the surface of Mars than we do of the bottom of the sea, and it’s impossible to guess what as yet undiscovered species might be found in the depths, and what roles they might play in the ecosystem. Given that corals are really, really slow growing, and can be hundreds of years old, only to be swept away by industrialised fishing boats in a matter of seconds, it might not be long before it’s too late to find out.

A friend of mine advised me to break up all this text with a picture of Venus in a clamshell.

Even McDonald’s have backed moves to protect the Bering Sea Canyons, presumably because without those delicious Alaska pollock there won’t be any more Filet-O-Fish. And whilst Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski urged McDonald’s not to support the campaign amidst fears of short term negative effect on the fishing industry, a new study has found that limiting the use of destructive fishing methods in the Bering Sea Canyons won’t have a significant negative impact on fishing, but will increase fish and seafood yield longer term (it doesn’t take a scientist to work out that last part, surely). Another recent report has found that more than half of the sponge and coral habitat in the Bering Sea is located in the Pribilof and Zhemchug Canyons, while they make up only a tiny fraction of the fishing area, making them a perfect site for protection - yet currently they have none.

You can pledge to protect the Bering Sea Canyons here. And you really should. Just think about all those hungry puffins.

(Sometimes I’m hungry too. Please buy my art before I’m dead)


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