Saving Canada’s Sea of Glass: Conservation groups welcome Canada’s newest MPA
Vancouver, BC – The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) is celebrating a new marine protected area for Canada’s ancient and unique glass sponge reefs, which CPAWS has been working to protect for over 16 years.
“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 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. Since that discovery, a handful of smaller reefs have been found elsewhere in BC and Alaska. However, BC’s Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound reefs are the only large, living glass sponge reefs in the global ocean.
“200 million years ago, there were giant glass sponge reefs that stretched across the prehistoric Tethys Sea, in what is now Europe,” said Dr. Manfred Krautter, palaeontologist and glass sponge expert. The fossilized remains of these reefs form giant cliffs that stretch across the Caucasian Mountains in Russia, Poland, the Franconian and Swabian Alps in Germany, northern Switzerland, eastern France, eastern Spain, to the Algarve in southern Portugal. “The reefs disappeared about 40 million years ago. We thought they were extinct, so finding living glass sponge reefs was like finding a herd of dinosaurs on Vancouver Island, it was a big surprise!” adds Krautter.
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 chip, and are very easily damaged,” said Jessen. Heavy fishing gear like bottom trawlers 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 government enhanced protection measures. The MPA will now prohibit all bottom contact fishing activities from occurring within 200 metres of the reefs, until it can be proven they are not harmful, and will implement more stringent measures for the midwater trawl fisheries.
“We are pleased to see that the Government of Canada has taken the necessary steps to improve the protection of the reefs and take a much more precautionary approach to 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.