Hakai Magazine

scuba divers and fish at Cortes Bank, California
Seamounts—underwater mountains—are typically important hotspots for marine life. Photo by Richard Hermann/Minden Pictures

California Seamounts Are Sylvia Earle’s Newest “Hope Spots”

Hope Spots hold no specific policy weight—the designation is meant to draw attention to culturally, ecologically, or economically important places.

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by Matt Koller

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Nearly 180 kilometers off the coast of San Diego, California, there’s a surf break that, from time to time, spawns waves rising taller than two telephone poles stacked on top of each other. They inspire awe—and caution—in those driving the boats carrying big-wave surfers in search of the next world record. Yet there’s another hazard lurking in these waters: Bishop Rock, the summit of an enormous underwater mountain, lies just a meter or two below the surface. When the sea is particularly rough, Bishop Rock can poke its head through the troughs of larger swells.

Bishop Rock is the peak of one of 60 underwater mountains—or seamounts—off the coast of California that rise more than a kilometer from the seafloor. Last month Mission Blue, a conservation organization founded by famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle, designated all of these seamounts as Hope Spots. Hope Spots are areas critical to the health of the ocean for any number of reasons: an abundance or diversity of species, a unique habitat or ecosystem, or significant cultural or economic value to a community, to name a few.

Like much of the dark expanse of the deep sea, so little is known about seamounts that scientists aren’t even certain just how many there are in the world. Current estimates from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put the number around 100,000—30,000 of which are in the Pacific Ocean. One thing scientists do know about seamounts is that they’re hotspots of biodiversity: places where fish gather to spawn, marine mammals congregate to feed, and precious minerals slowly accumulate over the course of millions of years.

This makes seamounts attractive for more than just big wave surfers—fishermen have long known that their bounteous waters attract commercially profitable species such as tuna, rockfish, swordfish, and sea bass. In recent years, seamounts have also become destinations for mining companies exploring the sea in search of precious metals including cobalt, copper, manganese, and gold, for which demand has increased with the advent of consumer electronics and the batteries used for solar panels and electric vehicles.

Commercial interest in biodiverse regions often draws attention from conservation organizations that lobby for their protection, and California’s seamounts are no different.

“Until right about now, we did not need proactive actions to take care of the ocean, because we could not get to most of the ocean,” Earle said at a ceremony in San Francisco, California, hosted by the Marine Conservation Institute and Mission Blue. “The ocean was protected by its inaccessibility. That’s just no longer true. Our impact is universal.”

Earle founded Mission Blue in 2009 and has been designating regions, such as the Bay of Fundy and Hawai‘i’s Olowalu Reef (which is also within the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary) as Hope Spots to draw attention to areas critical to the health of the ocean. The organization’s ultimate goal, Earle said, is to leverage a Hope Spot designation into a formal protection sanctioned by local, national, or international governments.

The Revillagigedo Archipelago, a chain of four volcanic islands off the coast of Mexico and the site of a 2017 Mission Blue expedition to draw attention to the “little Galapagos,” is part of an area recently designated as the largest marine protected area in North America and was made a Hope Spot in 2018. California’s seamounts are the 113th designation that the organization has made over the past decade.

Kristina Gjerde, a lawyer and advisor to the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Global Marine and Polar Programme, says that laws, such as those that establish marine protected areas, are “a tool—just like a wrench, just like a screwdriver, that, when applied in the right way, can work to help advance causes that need our help.”

A few of California’s seamounts, most notably the Davidson Seamount off the coast of Monterey and Cordell Bank off San Francisco, already lie in national marine sanctuaries, which are formal marine protected areas safeguarded by federal law, but the vast majority lack legal protection.

While Earle emphasizes that consumers have a responsibility to make informed, ethical decisions about the products they buy and the food they eat, she believes it’s practices like commercial fishing and deep-sea mining that have the capacity to strip resources at a devastating scale. She says industrial activity is “killing the ocean” and must be mitigated by the establishment of marine protected areas.

“We’ve got to protect these special places, [Hope Spots], with these creatures whose names we don’t even know,” says Earle. “But we do know they matter.”