Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network
National Marine Sanctuaries

Submarine Canyons

rock fish
Submarine canyons are steep-sided gorges on the seafloor of the continental slope. These distinctive underwater features share several physical characteristics with onshore river valleys: Submarine canyons are the most prominent geomorphic features within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Monterey Canyon, in the center of Monterey Bay, is the largest submarine canyon along the coast of North America. Numerous smaller canyons also cut into the continental shelf and slope of the Monterey Bay sanctuary. No significant canyons exist in the Gulf of the Farallones or Cordell Bank sanctuaries.

Much of the sediment carried by longshore currents ends up in the axes of active submarine canyons. Submarine landslides from canyon walls also deposit sediments on the canyon floor. The organic material associated with sediments provides nutrients to deep-sea organisms.

Sediment transport events are thought to be episodic. Potential triggering events include storms, earthquakes, moderate sea and surf conditions, tidal fluctuation, and flooding rivers.


Most organisms observed in canyons are not unique to canyon systems but are also found at similar depths outsides canyons. However, because submarine canyons extend from shallow waters to the deep sea, they contain an incredible diversity of organisms. For example:

Conservation and Management Issues

<em>Sebastes jordani</em> (Shortbelly Rockfish; Scorpaenidae) collected during mesopelagic fishes survey aboard NOAA SHIP Bell M. Shimada, at Monterey Canyon (SESA 9), 0-414 meters, May 2015. Identified by Robert N. Lea (CAS) and Erica J. Burton (MBNMS). Scale: Centimeter ruler.

<em>Icichthys lockingtoni</em> (Medusafish; Centrolophidae) collected during mesopelagic fishes survey aboard NOAA SHIP Bell M. Shimada, at shelf off Davenport/Cabrillo Canyon (SESA 5), 0-293 meters, May 2015. Identified by Robert N. Lea (CAS) and Erica J. Burton (MBNMS). Scale: Centimeter ruler.

Because they extend across a range of depths, submarine canyons are vulnerable to a variety of human activities. For example, a comparison of contaminant loads in surface and deep-sea fishes in Monterey Bay found elevated concentrations of persistent organic pollutants, such as PCBs and DDT, in fishes collected from Monterey Canyon.

The risk of pollutant bioaccumulation is higher in submarine canyons than in surrounding waters because the flow of sediments and pollutants tends to be concentrated in canyons. These processes may also lead to an accumulation of marine debris.

One important management issue relating to this habitat revolves around whether to allow the installation of communication cables - and if so, where to place them. If routed across submarine canyons, the cables may break as sediments rush down these geologic features. In addition, loops from slack cables are potential entanglement hazards for mobile species, such as marine mammals.


The proximity of canyons to the shore in the Monterey Bay sanctuary provides scientists with a unique opportunity to study canyon habitats. Recent monitoring efforts have focused on sediment movement events, mapping of benthic habitats, and determining the abundance and distribution of fishes and invertebrates.

Within the three northern California sanctuaries, current submarine canyon monitoring efforts take place in the Monterey Bay sanctuary; neither the Gulf of the Farallones nor the Cordell Bank sanctuary has monitoring efforts focused on this habitat.

Examples of related monitoring projects: