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Oceans Wise report recommends implementation of full protection for all of Howe Sound’s glass sponge reefs

Unceded Coast Salish Territory/Vancouver, BC — A new report from Ocean Wise has updated the health status of Howe Sound for 2020. While there is cautious optimism with some health ratings improving, the Ocean Wise report still has many labelled as critical or cautious, including  glass sponge reefs which “remain vulnerable to mechanical damage and climate change.” The report recommends implementing full protection of glass sponge reefs throughout all of Howe Sound.

Long thought extinct, glass sponge reefs mainly grow off BC’s coast.  Not only do these reefs provide important habitat for ocean life such as prawns and rockfish, they also filter ocean water, provide fertilizer for plankton, and store carbon.

Glass sponge reefs are particularly vulnerable to shattering from bottom contact fishing such as prawn traps as they are composed of the same material that makes glass.  A DFO survey, in cooperation with the Marine Life Sanctuaries Society, not only discovered a dead reef near Ellesmere Creek at the north end of Howe Sound, but found historical damage from fishing activities in all of the surveyed reefs.

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New research prompts call for urgent protection of BC’s glass sponge reefs

A new study led by Angela Stevenson at the University of British Columbia indicates that ongoing climate change is a serious and immediate threat to BC’s ancient glass sponge reefs. The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – British Columbia (CPAWS-BC) calls for the urgent establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs) for glass sponge reefs in BC.

Glass sponge reef ecosystems shelter rockfish and prawns and are efficient filter feeders. Healthy glass sponge reef marine protected areas can filter out up to 90% of bacteria from ocean water and work to keep carbon locked in the seafloor.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), along with the Marine Life Sanctuaries Society (MLSS), recently verified five new living glass sponge reefs and one dead reef during scientific surveys in Howe Sound. These reefs need urgent protection if they are to adapt and survive against threats from climate change and human activity.

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Oceans Act enforces glass sponge reef marine protected area regulations

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – British Columbia (CPAWS-BC) welcomes the conviction of illegal fishing in the Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reefs Marine Protected Area (Hecate MPA).

Illegal commercial groundfish harvesting was found to have occurred in the marine protected areas. A fine of $20,000 for illegal activity prohibited under the Hecate MPA Regulations, the first conviction under the Oceans Act nationwide. An additional fine, under the Fisheries Act, of $25,000 for possessing illegally caught fish was ordered to be paid.

“We would like to thank Fisheries and Oceans Canada for enforcing MPA regulations under the Oceans Act and protecting BC’s glass sponge reefs,” says Ross Jameson, Ocean Conservation Manager for CPAWS-BC.

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Sediment Can Make Glass Sponge Reefs Cough and Choke

Graduate student Nathan Grant, sponge expert Dr. Sally Leys, and others from the University of Alberta have conducted the first investigations on how reef-forming glass sponges respond to sediment in natural conditions. The results of the study raise concerning questions about the protection of these unique animals.

Photo by Dale Sanders

Since their discovery in 1987, glass sponge reefs have been thought of as the delicate treasure of BC’s coast. Glass sponge reefs were thought to have gone extinct 40 million years ago, and their discovery has been likened to finding a herd of dinosaurs. Glass sponge reefs are only found in BC and Alaska, forming intricate and towering formations deep on the ocean floor. These reefs form oases amidst the otherwise barren seafloor, attracting numerous species of rockfish, prawns, and sharks. Sadly, these vital ecosystems are vulnerable to damage by sedimentation.

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NEW DISCOVERY OF ANCIENT REEFS ON BC COAST IS A WAKE-UP CALL FOR GOVERNMENT

26 April, 2018 (Vancouver, BC) –  Two new glass sponge reefs have been discovered on BC’s coast, it was announced today. Underwater surveyors Farlyn Campbell and Jody Eriksson uncovered the incredibly rare, ancient glass sponge reefs near Port Hardy when surveying near fish farms.

Footage of these reefs collected by Tavish Campbell, Wild First campaign spokesperson, show that while one of these rare ecosystems is flourishing, the other, located directly below an open net-pen salmon farm, has been smothered by waste and is entirely dead.

Photo of newly discovered reef by Tavish Campbell Photography.

Photo of newly discovered reef destroyed by waste from a salmon farm. Photo by Tavish Campbell Photography.

 

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) has been working to protect glass sponge reefs in BC for decades and calls this discovery a wakeup call.

 

 

“The discovery of these glass sponge reefs is both incredibly exciting and saddening,” said Ross Jameson, CPAWS-BC’s Ocean Conservation Coordinator. “To find a new, living reef is significant on a global scale. However, seeing the complete destruction of one of these reefs is devastating.”

Glass sponge reefs were thought to have gone extinct 40 million years ago, until living glass sponge reefs were discovered in Hecate Strait, BC in 1987. Glass sponge reefs are found only in BC and Alaska, making them globally unique to this coast. The reefs provide important habitat for a wide variety of marine species, including spot prawns, rockfish, and sharks, but are fragile and susceptible to damage.

“Glass sponge reefs are marine oases for many marine species on an otherwise barren, seafloor desert,” adds Jameson. “Failing to protect reefs jeopardizes the health of our entire coastal ecosystem. This discovery demonstrates the need to permanently protect the remaining glass sponge reefs throughout the province. It’s a wakeup call.”

Despite the importance of glass sponge reefs to BC’s ocean health, most glass sponge reefs lack any permanent, legislated protection. The two newly discovered glass sponge reefs, located in a remote area in the Broughton Archipelago, join other glass sponge reefs in BC missing effective protection.  

“The footage of the two glass sponge reefs clearly show the effect the salmon farm has had on the reef below it,” said Tavish Campbell. “Where one reef is vibrant and full of life, the other is smothered in sediment and waste and appears dead.”

 

After more than two decades of campaigning by CPAWS, the glass sponge reefs of Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound were designated as a marine protected area (MPA) in early 2017. This MPA places restrictions on harmful activities protecting the reefs from direct damage by fishing gear and smothering due to sedimentation. Several other glass sponge reefs of varying sizes have been discovered in BC but have not received protection.

Given the fragile nature of these reefs and the current human activities in the area, Jameson believes that it is lucky that even one of these reefs is still alive. “With such limited restrictions on harmful activities along the coast, the discovery could just have easily been of two destroyed reefs,” notes Jameson.

 

To find out more about BC’s glass sponge reefs, the threats they face, and the work CPAWS is doing to protect them, visit www.glassspongereefs.com.

 

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For more information contact:

Ross Jameson, Ocean Conservation Coordinator

ross@cpawsbc.org | (604) 685-7445 ext. 29

 

BC’s Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reefs added to Canada’s Tentative List for World Heritage Sites

Ottawa, Ont. – The holidays are looking brighter this year with the announcement that British Columbia’s Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound glass sponge reefs are being added to Canada’s tentative list for World Heritage Sites.

The nomination to the list was made by the Central Coast First Nations, specifically by the Chiefs of the Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xai’Xais, Wuikinuxv and Nuxalk Nations, and supported by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and CPAWS.

“The reefs are an international treasure. They are globally unique, incredibly important, and deserving of global recognition as a source of awe and wonder for generations to come,” said Sabine Jessen, CPAWS’ National Ocean Program Director. “The honour of a world heritage site designation would mean international recognition for these extremely rare and delicate reefs.”

The reefs were discovered in 1987 by a team of Canadian scientists surveying the seafloor in Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound, off BC’s north coast. The reefs are over 9,000 years old, reach the height of an eight-storey building, and cover 1,000 km2 of ocean floor. Since their discovery, a handful of smaller reefs have been found elsewhere in BC and Southern Alaska. However, BC’s Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound reefs are by far the largest living glass sponge reefs anywhere in the global ocean.

German scientist Dr. Manfred Krautter, was the first person to realize the global significance of the discovery of living glass sponge reefs in Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound. Dr. Krautter had studied fossilized reefs in Europe for many years and likened the discovery of living glass sponge reefs to finding a herd of dinosaurs on land.  “At first I couldn’t believe it, we thought that glass sponge reefs had gone extinct about 40 million years ago, and then all of a sudden here is this ancient ecosystem alive and well off the coast of Canada, it was really amazing and I knew right away that the reefs should be a World Heritage Site” said Dr. Krautter.

Glass sponge reefs provide important deep-sea habitat for a host of species, from prawns to rockfish and sharks. But the reefs are also tremendously fragile, and not long after their discovery scientists noticed large areas of reef destroyed by bottom trawling, traps, and other harmful fishing activities.

After more than a decade of campaigning by CPAWS the glass sponge reefs were designated as a marine protected area (MPA) by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in February 2017. The reefs are also designated as a “Marine Sanctuary” by Central Coast First Nations due to their ecological and cultural importance. In their letter of nomination, the Chiefs state that, “As coastal First Nations, our culture and well-being are inextricably tied to the sea and the resources it provides… Ensuring the protection of this globally unique area is a priority for our nations.”

“We’re hopeful the World Heritage Committee will recognize the unique value of the glass sponge reefs as the international treasure that they are,” says Jessen.

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