Feds to protect underwater landscape off Vancouver Island

A lead scientist for Ocean Networks Canada says the federal government’s plan to protect a marine environment off Vancouver Island is a great start.

The Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans announced Wednesday it is taking the first step in protecting the Marine Protected Area, which would cover an area twice the size of New Brunswick, west of Vancouver Island to the edge of Canadian waters, 200 nautical miles off the coast.

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Richard Dewey, associate director of science for Ocean Networks Canada at the University of Victoria, said the 140,000 square-kilometre area to be protected is rich in biodiversity.

Stretching near the western flank of the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate, the underwater landscape ranges from mountainous “seamounts” to rare, chimney-like hydrothermal vents.

“This area is quite a large area that they’ve identified, which is very, very encouraging, because the ocean doesn’t know about boundaries — political ones and so forth,” he said.

When protected areas are too small — which he said has happened in the past — species of concern might not truly be protected, since they become vulnerable as soon as they migrate out of the area, he said.

“What’s significant is Canada is working in the right direction to recognize the marine environment needs increased conservation efforts,” Dewey said.

The hydrothermal vents, which were only discovered in 1982, release minerals from the Earth’s crust and are home to a variety of unique sea life and plants that have adapted to the harsh conditions created by the warm or saline water.

The ministry says it intends to create the Marine Protected Area by 2020, but there are many hurdles to overcome first.

It says final boundaries and activity restrictions still need to be worked out and there will be consultations with local, provincial and indigenous partners.

The area would also protect a seamount, or an underwater mountain, that rises more than 1,000 metres from the sea floor.

Dewey said seamounts are known as ecological “hot spots,” for the way they host a wide variety of species.

asmart@timescolonist.com

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