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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 B.C.’s glass sponge reefs,” says Ross Jameson, Ocean Conservation Manager for CPAWS-BC.

Map of Marine Protected Areas. DFO, 2020.

Located in the Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound off B.C.’s north and central coasts, the Hecate MPA glass sponge reefs are a world treasure. Once thought extinct for millions of years, glass sponge reefs are now known only to live in the northeast Pacific Ocean, mainly off B.C.’s coast.

CPAWS-BC has been working since the early 2000s to protect B.C.’s glass sponge reefs. After years of pushing for protection, we celebrated when the Hecate MPA was created by Fisheries and Oceans Canada in 2017. CPAWS-BC continues to work with First Nations and the Government of Canada to protect other vulnerable glass sponge reefs in B.C.  Enforcement of these Oceans Act MPA regulations will help ensure these rare ecosystems are not destroyed due to human activities.

Glass sponges are filter feeders. They do this so efficiently that 95% of bacteria are filtered out, cleaning the water. In fact, a single small reef can filter enough water to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool in less than 60 seconds! Glass sponge reefs provide shelter for bottom-dwelling creatures such as rockfish and prawns.

Fishing activity can cause severe harm to these fragile habitats. Prawn and crab traps drop down and crush glass sponge reefs. Bottom trawling of heavy nets dragged along the seafloor destroy everything in their path while kicking up clouds of disturbed sediment, that prevent the sponges from feeding. 

While this conviction means that the Hecate MPA is being enforced, more work needs to be done. Jameson says, “Now we need a management plan for this MPA with effective education, outreach, and additional protections to prevent these offences from occurring in the future.”

Resources

Fisheries and Oceans Canada. (2020, January 20). Safeguarding our future through the Oceans Act [News Release]. Retrieved https://www.canada.ca/en/fisheries-oceans/news/2020/01/safeguarding-our-future-through-the-oceans-act.html

Quillback rockfish on glass sponge reef. Photo Credit: Diane Reid

Saving Canada’s Sea of Glass: Welcoming Canada’s Newest MPA

CPAWS is celebrating a new marine protected area for Canada’s ancient and unique glass sponge reefs in BC’s Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound! CPAWS has been working to protect these reefs for over 16 years.

This incredible announcement did not go unnoticed. We were absolutely over-the-moon to see a congratulatory tweet from “Her Deepness”, world-renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle, and equally excited to see Leonardo DiCaprio share our glass sponge reef video via his social media pages to a global audience of millions of people. See the video below!

“We are overjoyed to see these reefs finally get the protection they need as Canada’s newest Marine Protected Area,” said Sabine Jessen, CPAWS’ National Ocean Program Director. “The reefs are an international treasure, they are globally unique, incredibly important, and deserving of strong protection so that they can remain a source of awe and wonder for generations to come,” adds Jessen.

The living glass sponge reefs are over 9,000 years old, reach the height of an eight-storey building, and cover 1,000 km2 of ocean floor. Like coral reefs, the glass sponge reefs provide important habitat for many ecologically and commercially important species, like spot prawns, rockfish, and sharks.

“Glass sponges are as fragile as they sound. They have the consistency of a baked meringue or prawn chips, and are very easily damaged,” said Jessen. Heavy fishing gear like bottom trawl nets and prawn traps can crush the delicate reefs, while the sediment plumes kicked up as equipment is dragged along the sea floor can smother and choke the sponges.

“Tragically, we think about 50 per cent of the glass sponge reefs have already been destroyed by bottom trawlers and other heavy fishing gear,” adds Jessen.

Initially, the proposal for the MPA did not prohibit these harmful activities from happening right next to the reefs, putting the reefs at risk from further damage. After receiving thousands of letters from Canadians, as well as a letter from more than 40 international marine scientists, all demanding better protection of the reefs, the federal government strengthened the protection measures. The MPA will now prohibit all bottom contact fishing activities from occurring within at least 1 kilometre of the reefs until it can be proven they are not harmful, and will implement more stringent measures for the midwater trawl fisheries through fisheries closures.

“We are pleased to see that the Government of Canada has taken the necessary steps to improve the protection of the reefs and that the government has taken a much more precautionary approach to the design and management of this MPA. We firmly believe that there will be significant long-term benefits of strongly protecting the reefs that will outweigh the small impacts to the fishing industry,” said Jessen. “As an important nursery habitat for many commercially important species, many fisheries depend on the reefs, so protecting them will ensure the long-term sustainability of these fisheries,” Jessen added.

Proposed Protections for BC’s Glass Sponge Reefs Too Weak!

In June 2015, Fisheries and Oceans Canada published the draft regulations for the proposed Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound MPA for public review. CPAWS, alongside other conservation groups, 40 leading international marine scientists and almost 2000 Canadians say that the proposed regulations are not good enough.

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