New marine refuges in Howe Sound to protect glass sponge reefs


On March 14, 2019, the Honourable Jonathan Wilkinson, Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, announced the establishment of eight new marine refuges to protect nine newly discovered glass sponge reefs. Each marine refuge will protect one glass sponge reef, with the exception of one that will protect two of the glass sponge reefs that are close together.

Glass sponge reefs are unique to the Pacific Northwest of North America and were thought to have gone extinct until their discovery in 1987 by Natural Resources Canada. Scientists have likened the discovery of these long-living and fragile glass sponge reefs to discovering a herd of dinosaurs. They are biologically and ecologically significant and provide important habitat and nursery grounds for many invertebrate and fish species including economically important species such as prawns and rockfish. Additionally, they provide an essential water filtration service by removing bacteria and processing carbon and nitrogen as they filter feed.

The protection of corals and sponge reefs is a key component of Canada’s efforts to preserving ocean biodiversity by protecting unique and important marine species and habitats. In addition, the Government of Canada continues to be committed to meeting its marine conservation target (MCT) of protecting 10% of marine and coastal areas by 2020 in collaboration with provincial and territorial governments, Indigenous peoples, industry, academia and the conservation sector.

The Howe Sound Glass Sponge Reef marine refuges protect the glass sponge reefs from all commercial, recreational and Indigenous bottom contact fishing activities in the area (prawn trap, crab trap, shrimp trawl, groundfish trawl, groundfish hook and line, and the use of downrigger gear in recreational salmon trolling).

These closures take effect in advance of the spring 2019 fishing season and include a 150 m boundary extending beyond the reefs edges. This precautionary measure was put in place to address the uncertainty associated with the accuracy of gear deployment, possible impacts of sediment plumes caused by gear placement near the reefs, and to allow for new sponge growth.

Consultation Process and Science Advice for Fishery Closures

In 2014, DFO embarked on a consultation process to conserve nine glass sponge reefs in the Strait of Georgia and Howe Sound. By 2016, all nine reefs were closed to bottom contact commercial, recreational and Indigenous fishing activities with a 150m boundary extending beyond the reefs edges and are now recognized as marine refuges that contribute to the MCT.

During this consultation process, nine additional glass sponge reefs in Howe Sound were brought to DFO’s attention by the Marine Life Sanctuaries Society and were flagged for future research and consideration. A Fishery Notice and letter from DFO was sent to First Nations and stakeholders in September 2017 requesting Voluntary Avoidance of these sites as a precautionary measure.

In 2018, the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat published a peer-reviewed report Glass Sponge Aggregations in Howe Sound: Locations, Reef Status and Ecological Significance Assessment that identified 18 potential reefs in Howe Sound and mapped their boundaries using a remotely operated vehicle. The report confirmed that nine sites contain ecologically and biologically significant reefs, and provide vital habitat for at least 84 species of invertebrates and fish. Nine others require additional ground-truthing to confirm their ecological significance.

Subsequently, a risk assessment was conducted internally, based on DFO’s Ecological Risk Assessment Framework for Coldwater Corals and Sponge Dominated Communities. The results concluded that closure of bottom contact fishing, including prawn by trap, crab by trap, shrimp and groundfish by trawl, groundfish hook and line, and recreational midwater salmon trolling using downrigger gear, is required to adequately protect these fragile glass sponge reefs.

Consultations were undertaken with First Nations, commercial fish harvesters, recreational fish harvesters and conservation organizations on measures to protect these glass sponge reefs from fishing impacts. These included several workshops, numerous bilateral meetings with different groups, and extensive correspondence throughout the process leading up to the designation of the reefs.

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