As conservationists and researchers celebrate the announcement of new protections for five more glass sponge reefs in Howe Sound, several companies are also calling for greater enforcement in areas of fragile habitat.
Beneath the surface of Átl’ka7tsem / Howe Sound lies an ancient and unique ecosystem once thought to be extinct: glass sponge reefs.
As their name suggests, these forms of marine life are particularly fragile, building their skeletons from silicon dioxide, but creating habitat for marine animals including salmon, rockfish, herring, halibut and sharks. . They also store carbon and filter over 17 billion liters of water. And Howe Sound, according to the Ocean Wise Research Institute website, “is exceptionally special in that it has the only known reef-forming sponges in waters less than 40m deep.”
In 2020, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) confirmed the discovery of five new live glass sponge reefs in Howe Sound with assistance from the Marine Life Sanctuaries Society of BC (MLSS).
Now, since January 17, DFO has declared additional fishing closures, prohibiting all commercial and recreational bottom contact fishing for shrimp, shrimp, crab and groundfish to protect these five reefs from silica sponges. A buffer zone of 150 meters around the reefs prevents sediment plumes from this fishery – by pot, trawl or line – from affecting the sponge reefs by “smothering” them.
Effective April 1, restrictions on winches for recreational salmon trolling will also be in place at the five sites as well as the Howe Sound-Queen Charlotte Channel Marine Sanctuary.
Slow-growing, fragile reefs must be protected from direct contact with fishing gear and sedimentation disturbances. Since most of the reef mass is above the seafloor, “even a single hook on a fishing line pulling on the top of one of these sponges can knock it over,” said Adam Taylor of the Marine Life Sanctuaries Society of BC (MLSS).
Besides contact damage, the sponge cannot feed and filter on its side as well as it can upright, and it may die. A shrimp trap or line connecting traps, Taylor said, can cause “catastrophic damage.”
The new closures cover a total area of 5.2 square kilometers and include parts of Alberta Bay near Lions Bay, Carmelo Point south of Gambier Island, Langdale near the ferry terminal, Mariners Rest on the side west of Gambier and Collingwood Channel between Keats and Bowen Islands.
A notice on DFO’s website says 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 asks stricter protection and enforcement for fragile marine life.
The group’s oceans activist and glass sponge reef expert Carlo Acuna said he was grateful to DFO for creating the fishing closures, which have taken about two years since the reefs were checked in 2020. DFO has consulted with environmental, community and fisheries groups, although they are part of the process has been delayed by the pandemic. But the CPAWS would like to see stronger, more proactive enforcement and monitoring to prevent damage to reefs in the first place.
“When they are broken, they will take hundreds of years to grow back,” Acuna said. “It was really obvious last year.”
In June 2020, DFO seized five chains of illegally set shrimp traps in a fishing area on a glass sponge reef near Sechelt. A subsequent DFO investigation led to charges, and the case is expected to be heard in provincial court in April, DFO communications adviser Michele Fogal said in an email.
CPAWS would also like the protections to become permanent and enshrined in law. Although implementing closures can be done quickly, Acuna said they can be removed just as easily. Permanent protections require a longer process, with more consultations that include infrastructure and shipping.
MLSS has provided target information to DFO for several of these five reefs and discovered many of the reefs that have been subject to previous closures, and also raises concerns about existing and ongoing damage to sponge reefs siliceous in Howe Sound.
“We are very pleased to see the closures come into effect and hope they will increase police presence, awareness and education as this is always a significant issue with reefs damaged by fishing activities,” said Taylor said.
Taylor himself reported four incidents of commercial fishing boats deploying traps in closures multiple times last year, some of which he said were visible from downtown Vancouver.
One way to help, Taylor said, would be to provide more clarity about the location of protected areas and prohibited activities. Part of the challenge in Howe Sound is the various protective areas such as marine protected areas, lack of fishing areas like Porteau Cove and Whytecliff Park, rockfish conservation areas and boundary closures glass sponges, each with different levels of restrictions and protections. It can be confusing, Taylor said, for anglers 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 apply and easier to interpret,” Taylor said.
MLSS worked 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 install a mooring buoy for divers and work to promote the limits.
“Because if it’s sitting at the bottom of the ocean and nobody knows, 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 a good start for ocean protection, and CPAWS hopes more announcements will be made before Vancouver hosts the fifth International Congress on Marine Protected Areas in September, as well as Canada’s commitment to protect 25% of its oceans in 2025.
The January 17 closures follow similar closures in 2015, 2016 and 2019 that protected 17 glass sponge reefs in those waters, which were supported by Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation). Consultation regarding Indigenous bottom-contact food, social and ceremonial fishing is ongoing for the new closures, the DFO fishing advisory says.