Saving sponges

By Sabine Jessen,  National Oceans Program Director

It was back in 2008 that CPAWS first took the information we had on the glass sponge reefs in the Strait of Georgia to Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) to ask for desperately needed protection. For the past six years we have been hard at work to get protection for these globally unique, extremely rare and very important ecosystems, and I am happy to celebrate that DFO has now requested that commercial and recreational fishers respect voluntary fishing closures on the Strait of Georgia Reefs.

Glass sponge reefs were first discovered in BC waters in the 1980s by a team of Canadian scientists surveying the seafloor along the north and central coast in Hecate Strait. Before that they were believed to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs some 40 million years ago.

CPAWS began campaigning for protection of these northern reefs in 2001. The process to establish a marine protected area around the reefs began not long after, starting with voluntary fishing closures to protect the reefs from damage by bottom trawlers. Scientists estimated up to 50% of the known reefs were destroyed by bottom trawling over the 15 years after their discovery. That was an important first step to protect the reefs, now the Hecate Strait Glass Sponge Reef MPA is nearing completion; we hope that the government will be making an announcement this year.

Not long after the first reefs were found in Hecate Strait, more were found in the Strait of Georgia. These reefs are a smaller in size but no less important. That they can survive in such a heavily developed area is a wonder indeed. In fact scientists studying how the reefs feed on bacteria that they filter from seawater suggests that the reefs in the Strait of Georgia may provide crucial water-cleaning services. Not to mention the important habitat they provide for spot prawns, juvenile rockfish and other species.

When scientists from Natural Resources Canada identified the Strait of Georgia reefs we knew that they had to be protected too. They are just as vulnerable to damage from trawling and bottom fisheries as the northern reefs as there is considerable fishing activity and development throughout the area.

Six years of hard work to raise awareness of these reefs and secure proper protection culminated in our Journey to the Sea of Glass submarine dive event last October. The event was a final big push to move these reefs further into the public eye and up the political agenda. It was a huge success and a wonderful experience for all the lucky passengers who got to witness the majesty of these ancient and mysterious ecosystems.

So we celebrate the news from DFO that voluntary closures on bottom fishing activities, like trawling, prawn trapping, and recreational fishing have been put in place on nine reefs throughout the Strait of Georgia. This is an important first step in getting full protection for these reefs. We are now engaged in the process with fisherman, stakeholders and DFO to develop full legal closures for the reefs in 2015, and have our sights set on marine protected area status in the future.

Also since the discovery of these nine reefs a few more have been found in Howe Sound, and we intend to work with DFO to make sure that they have all the information they need to secure protection for all of BC’s glass sponge reefs... after all they are the only ones in the world!