New protected areas in Howe Sound

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Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s has finally announced the protection of 8 new protected areas in Howe Sound British Columbia, that will protect 9 sponge reef sites. This announcement is the culmination of years of work on behalf of numerous individuals and organisations. Here WCA partner Roy Mulder gives a rough history of the process. It is the acknowledgement of an effort on behalf of numerous individuals and organisations that participated.

Very few individual/organisational efforts have resulted in the creation of full ocean protections in Canada. The sponge reef protections started because the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) recognised the critical importance of these sponge reefs. They understood that they play a hugely significant role in filtration of water, as well as providing a safe habitat for fish and other species. Consequently CPAWS under Sabine Jessen’s leadership set out on a path that would see protections given to a sponge reef site by Haida Gwaii B.C.. Dr. Sally Ley from University of Alberta provided the science used to establish the live sponge reef’s significance. It was this effort that was leveraged by several organisations and individuals to start dialogue on the same need for protections for the Howe Sound sponge reefs. CPAWS was a leader in putting all of the concerned parties together to strategise how this could happen.

Previous to their discovery Dr. Manfred Krautter had been studying sponge reefs from fossilised remains in Germany. At that time science only looked at the sponges as fossils. Dr. Bill Austin from Sydney B.C. was amongst the first to realise that there were live sponge reefs that still existed on the planet and he contacted Dr. Krautter.  This was in the early days of live sponge reef studies.

CPAWS recognised the significance of the sponge reefs off of Haida Gwaii and consequently they started the effort that saw these reef sites become the first of their kind to receive DFO protections. Sabine Jessen and CPAWS set out on this campaign using a sponge specimen “Mr. Stinky” (the sponges give off a strong odour) to promote the need for protections.

Meanwhile Glen Dennison and his regular dive team were encountering sponge reefs in Howe Sound that were within air diving limits. It became apparent early on that these reefs were extremely delicate and the dive team would observe damage from fishing activities on the reefs. At the time Roy was president of Marine Life Sanctuaries Society of BC and Canadian Marine Environment Protection Society. Roy brought both organisations into the mix of other’s interested and CPAWS worked on putting together mass meetings of groups and individuals to discuss what could be done to protect these sponges.

Glen through a massive citizen science effort using divers, boats, data loggers, drop camera work, and created incredibly detailed charts of the sponge reef sites. Any sites within air dive range were video recorded by Roy and chart locations were done by Glen. In his efforts Glen discovered numerous new reefs by going out on his boat with biologist assistants using his sounder and drop camera. Through this work it became evident that there were many more sites than were previously thought to exist in Howe Sound.  Glen also consulted with Dr. Jeff Marliave from Vancouver Aquarium to bring in a scientific component to his studies.

The first site to see protections was the Halkett reef site which is part of BC Parks.  It was the BC divers that created the effort to see this site protected.  While watching the sinking of the HMCS Annapolis off of Gambier Island, Glen Dennison took the opportunity to bring Member of Parliament Jordan Sturdy over to the sponge reef site which was nearby. Partnering with MLSSBC M.P. Sturdy put an effort into creating official protections which resulted in the Halkett sponge reef being protected and the boundary of Halkett BC Park was extended to include the sponge reef site.

Meanwhile the DFO meetings started up to put concerned parties into the same room to discuss what it would mean to protect 9 sponge reef sites in the Strait of Georgia. This resulted in a mass consultation with CMEPS, First Nations, MLSSBC, Sunshine Coast Conservation Association, David Suzuki Foundation, Vancouver Aquarium, CPAWS, DFO, Sports Fishing Advisory Board, commercial fishers from the prawn industry, and numerous others. The largest challenge revolved around what the fishing exclusion zone would look like. The fishing industry was supporting a 50 meter/164 ft. limit, while the conservation organisations were more in favour of a 150 M zone. It was the 150 M/492 ft. zone that ended up becoming the standard distance. The net result of these discussions is what resulted in the creation of 9 new fully protected sponge reef sites in the Strait of Georgia.

Thanks to pressure from several organisations DFO was approachable in regards to extending protections to the sites that were known in Howe Sound. Thanks to Glen’s dive team and his mapping there was significant information available for DFO to use to truth the sites. A special dive team led by divers Hamish Tweed and Chris Straub ventured to over 73M/240 ft. on the Lions Bay sponge reef site.  Thanks to support from articles by Larry Pynn from the Vancouver Sun, as well as other smaller publications like Lions Bay News and Squamish Chief public interest was growing. Meanwhile the lucky divers began a citizen science project led by Glen. This resulted in temperature data loggers put on sites by the dive team, while Glen would go out with an assistant every Saturday to do more comprehensive mapping and drop camera work. Roy took the lead on video production and produced the documentary Cradles of Glass to use in promotion for the need to protect the sponges. This video was amongst some panel discussion/video screenings that were hosted by Vancouver Aquarium and David Suzuki Foundation. The public was clearly in support of protections for the sponges and ultimately it was this groundswell of support that provided the input for DFO to create the protections.

One of the most significant outcomes for divers as a result of this whole process is a special PADI “Sponge Diver” specialty course offered by Ocean Quest dive shop in Vancouver. Deirdre McCracken spearheaded this course to ensure that divers visiting the sponge reefs had the necessary skills to dive the reefs without damaging them. The glass sponges are incredibly delicate and the slightest touch by a fin is enough to do damage. This means that diver’s buoyancy and trim is a critical component of diving these reefs. Another challenge to divers is the depths at which the sponges are found. Most of these reefs start at 30M/98 ft. and can go down significantly deeper. The tech specialists that were part of the deep water sponge sites had to be incredibly well trained to visit these sites. The precision of these divers was a great demonstration of mixed gas diving and complex decompression skills. Any qualified divers interested in diving the Howe Sound sponge reefs can contact local dive charters that frequent the sites. They truly are a wonder to behold and are well worth the effort to pay them a visit.

There are numerous other sites still being studied in Howe Sound and with the support of the dive and conservation community, we will hopefully see several sites get some protections as well.

I would like to thank all of the individuals and organisations involved in creating the protections for the sponge reefs and I apologise if you were missed. This whole process demonstrated the critical role of conservationists and divers in the creation of protected areas. It was a group effort that resulted in this announcement by the Canadian Minister of Fisheries:

Roy Mulder

Canadian Marine Environment Protection Society


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