Roughly 100 miles off the coast of New York and New Jersey, sperm whales and sea turtles swim gracefully beneath the waves. Deep-sea corals provide shelter for octopuses, sea stars, bivalves and many other colorful aquatic life forms. On the ocean floor, divers explore historic shipwrecks.
Known as Hudson Canyon, this idyllic place could soon become the United States’ newest national marine sanctuary, a protected underwater area similar to a national park or monument. This summer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) wants the public to weigh in on whether Hudson Canyon should become part of the national marine sanctuary system, which includes 17 sites—15 underwater parks and 2 monuments—across the country.
Hudson Canyon begins roughly 100 miles southeast of New York City and extends some 350 miles into the Atlantic, per NOAA. It’s the largest submarine canyon along the East Coast, stretching up to 7.5 miles wide and measuring between 2 and 2.5 miles deep at various points.
Glaciers carved the underwater chasm more than 10,000 years ago toward the end of the last Ice Age, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), which nominated Hudson Canyon for marine sanctuary status in 2016. Naturalist William Beebe first explored the underwater canyon in 1925, describing it as a “stately, invisible gorge,” according to the Federal Register.
Today, the canyon is home to hundreds of species of fish and marine mammals; it’s also an important economic driver for the region due to its rich fishing, recreational diving, whale watching and birding opportunities. Shipwrecks dating back to the 19th century, including freight ships and U.S. military radar platforms, rest on the sea floor within the canyon, reports NPR’s Eric McDaniel.
“This is New York and New Jersey’s Grand Canyon—an ecologically rich area with diverse species including sharks, whales and dolphins, deep-sea corals, sharks and birds,” says Simon Cripps, WCS’ executive director for marine conservation, in a statement.
Becoming a marine sanctuary would help Hudson Canyon conserve its “rich marine wildlife and habitats, promote sustainable economic activities and create new opportunities for scientific research, ocean education and recreation,” notes a separate NOAA statement. But WCS and other supporters hope the federal government will go one step further by permanently closing the area to oil, gas and mineral development.
Though this designation is just the start of the multi-year process, the Hudson Canyon initiative is part of President Joe Biden’s broader goal of conserving at least 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030.
The move also comes amid dire warnings that rising ocean temperatures could lead to a mass extinction event among marine species. With federal protection, Hudson Canyon could become a refuge for fish and marine mammals that need cooler water temperatures to survive. As John Calvelli, WSC’s executive vice president for public affairs, tells the Washington Post’s Anna Phillips, “We want to make sure we’re protecting it for the future.”