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Stunning sea life under melting Arctic ice

By Matthew Knight, for CNN
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Bright coral beneath the ice
  • Greenpeace ship, Esperanza, sailed to waters north of Norway's Svalbard Islands
  • Recorded rare footage of sea anemones, tunicates and soft corals
  • Greenpeace says detected track marks indicating bottom trawling in the Arctic waters
  • Coastal states of the Arctic Ocean met in Norway last month to discuss conservation

(CNN) -- An expedition by environmental group Greenpeace has revealed a stunning array of sea life on the Arctic Ocean seabed.

The crew on board the Greenpeace ship, Esperanza, sailed to waters north of Norway's Svalbard Islands to record the footage.

Using state-of-the-art equipment, veteran underwater photographer Gavin Newman was able to capture rare images of sea anemones, tunicates and soft corals which appear to thrive in the harsh subzero temperatures.

"We came here very much prepared to survey vast areas of flat sand and mud, but we have found an amazing amount of under water biodiversity," Newman told CNN.

Greenpeace: Arctic Under Pressure Expedition

Newman captured the footage up to 600 meters beneath the ocean surface. A separate camera attached to a remote operated vehicle recorded startlingly clear images of coral and fish up to 200 meters below sea level.

"It is one of the most colorful places I've dived apart from tropical coral reefs. It really was very unexpected," he said.

But Greenpeace says these pristine Arctic ecosystems are under threat from rising temperatures, changes in ocean currents and ocean acidification, or the absorption of anthropogenic carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

The receding polar ice is also tempting fishing trawlers into the Arctic's international waters, Greenpeace says.

"There are some Norwegian and Russian trawlers out here. We asked to go on board one of the Norwegian trawlers to talk to them about where they were fishing, but they declined our offer," Newman said.

Greenpeace also claims these fishing trawlers are causing damage to ecosystems on the seabed.

"We've found trawlers are ripping up huge amounts of coral and other important habitat on the seabed. It's like someone's ploughed a field," Newman said.

Greenpeace found the trawl marks on the seabed at varying depths of between 200 and 400 meters.

The environmental group has called for an international moratorium on all industrial activities, including bottom trawling in the Arctic Ocean.

Frida Bengtsson, Greenpeace Nordic oceans campaigner said in a statement: "Greenpeace is calling for immediate protection of these waters to allow time for an effective international management regime to be drawn up for the Arctic Ocean."

"Any fishery encroaching on the Arctic Ocean must be stopped until the scientific community has a clearer understanding of this ecosystem, and the ways it is being impacted by climate change".

Bengtsson added that the U.S. took an environmental lead in November 2009 when it announced a ban on all fishing north of Alaska's Bering Strait, and she urged Norway to follow suit banning all bottom trawling -- dragging a net along the ocean floor -- north of 80 degrees.

Sigrun Holst, deputy director general of Norway's Ministry of Fisheries and Coastal Affairs, told CNN: "If we are speaking about bottom trawling in the international areas around the North Pole, those areas are over 4,000 meters deep."

Norwegian scientists have indicated that it is highly unlikely that the fish caught in the country's waters -- mainly cod -- could exist at such depths, Holst said.

"If, against all odds, the stocks should migrate to such deep depths, we don't have any trawlers that we could use, with today's technology, that would be possible to use in those waters. It's all very hypothetical," she added.

Last month the coastal states of the Arctic Ocean -- Norway, Russia, Denmark/Greenland, Canada and United States -- met in the Norwegian capital Oslo, to discuss conservation and fish stocks.

They concluded that large-scale commercial fishing in the Arctic Ocean was not imminent, but said more scientific research needed to be conducted and shared between the five states to understand how climate change is affecting fish stocks in the Arctic.