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Five more glass sponge reefs in Howe Sound protected by new closures

Conservation groups call for more enforcement

As conservationists and researchers celebrate the announcement of new protections for five more glass sponge reefs in Howe Sound, several societies are also calling for more enforcement in the fragile habitat areas. 

Below the surface of Átl'ka7tsem / Howe Sound lies an ancient and globally unique ecosystem previously thought to be extinct: the glass sponge reefs.

As their name suggests, these forms of marine life are particularly fragile, building their skeletons out of silicon dioxide, but create a habitat for marine animals including salmon, rockfish, herring, halibut and sharks. They also store carbon and filter more than 17 billion litres of water. And Howe Sound, Ocean Wise Research Institute’s website says, “is exceptionally special in having the only known reef-forming sponges in water shallower than 40 m.”

In 2020, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) confirmed the discovery of five new living glass sponge reefs in Howe Sound with the help of the Marine Life Sanctuaries Society of BC (MLSS).

Now, as of Jan. 17, DFO has declared additional fishing closures, prohibiting all commercial and recreational bottom contact fishing for prawn, shrimp, crab and groundfish in order to protect those five glass sponge reefs. A buffer of 150 metres around the reefs prevents sediment plumes from such fishing – by trap, trawling or line – from affecting the sponge reefs by “choking” them.

Starting April 1, downrigger restrictions for recreational salmon trolling will also be applied to the five sites as well as the Howe Sound-Queen Charlotte Channel marine refuge.

The fragile, slow-growing reefs need to be protected from direct contact with fishing gear, and the disturbance of sedimentation. Since most of the reefs’ mass sits above the seafloor, “Even just a hook on a fishing line pulling the top of one of these sponges can topple it over,” Adam Taylor of the Marine Life Sanctuaries Society of BC (MLSS) said. 

Besides contact damage, the sponge cannot feed and filter on its side as well as it can in an upright position, and it can die. A prawn trap or line connecting traps, Taylor said, can cause “catastrophic damage.”

The new closures cover a total area of 5.2 square kilometres and include portions of Alberta Bay near Lions Bay, Carmelo Point off south Gambier Island, Langdale near the ferry terminal, Mariners Rest on the west side of Gambier and Collingwood Channel between Keats and Bowen Islands. 

A notice on DFO’s website states that these closures “will be in effect for the long term,” but the Canadian Parks and Wildlife Society – British Columbia (CPAWS-BC) notes they are not permanent, and is calling for stronger protection and enforcement for the fragile marine life. 

The group’s oceans campaigner and glass sponge reef expert Carlo Acuna said they are thankful to DFO for creating the fishing closures, which took about two years since the reefs were verified in 2020. DFO consulted with environmental, community and fishing groups, although part of the process was delayed by the pandemic. But CPAWS would like to see stronger, more proactive enforcement and monitoring to prevent the damage to the reefs in the first place. 

“When they are broken, it will take hundreds of years to grow back,” Acuna said. “That was really evident last year.” 

In June 2020, DFO seized five strings of illegally set prawn traps from within a glass sponge reef fishing closure near Sechelt. A subsequent investigation by DFO led to charges, and the case is expected to be heard in provincial court this April, DFO communications advisor Michele Fogal said in an email.

CPAWS would also like to see the protections become permanent and written into law. While the implementation of the closures can be done quickly, Acuna said they can be removed just as easily. Permanent protections require a longer process, with more consultation that includes infrastructure and shipping.

MLSS provided target information to DFO for several of these five reefs and discovered many of the reefs that are the subject of previous closures, and is also raising concerns about existing and ongoing damage to the glass sponge reefs in Howe Sound. 

“We’re very pleased to see the closures come into place and we’re hopeful that they will increase enforcement presence, and outreach and education, because it is still a significant problem with reefs getting damaged through fishing activities,” Taylor said. 

Taylor himself reported four incidents of commercial fishing vessels deploying traps within the closures on multiple occasions last year, some of which he said were visible from downtown Vancouver.

One way to help, Taylor said, would be to provide more clarity around where the protected areas are and what activities are prohibited. Part of the challenge in Howe Sound is the different protection areas such as marine protected areas, no fishing areas like those at Porteau Cove and Whytecliff Park, rockfish conservation areas and glass sponge boundary closures, each with varying levels of restrictions and protections. It can be confusing, Taylor said, for fishermen and the general public to understand what the rules are and where they apply. 

“A positive outcome would be to combine the different types of closures into a more comprehensive closure to make them easier to enforce and easier to interpret,” Taylor said. 

MLSS has been working with BC Parks on a management plan to allow specially trained and certified divers to access the sponge glass reefs in Halkett Bay Marine Provincial Park (near Gambier Island) for recreational and citizen science purposes. In the near future, Taylor said, they will be installing a divers’ mooring buoy and working to promote where the boundaries are. 

“Because if it’s sitting at the bottom of the ocean and nobody knows about it, nobody cares,” he said.

The society is also developing proposals to continue studying the reefs and exploring restoration projects. More information can be found at mlssbc.com.

Acuna said 2022 is off to a good start for ocean protection, and CPAWS hopes even more announcements will be made ahead of Vancouver hosting the fifth International Marine Protected Area Congress in September, as well as Canada’s commitment to protecting 25 per cent of its oceans by 2025.

The Jan. 17 closures follow similar closures in 2015, 2016 and 2019 that protected 17 glass sponge reefs in these waters, which were supported by Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation). Consultation regarding Indigenous food, social and ceremonial bottom contact fishing is ongoing for the new closures, DFO’s fishery notice states.