The Sea of Glass: Protecting BC’s unique glass sponge reefs
Deep in the cold dark waters of the BC coast lie rare ecosystems once thought extinct: glass sponge reefs! While individual glass sponges have been identified around the world, glass sponge reefs are mostly unique to beautiful British Columbia. On the north and central coasts, these living reefs stretch for hundreds of kilometres across the seafloor and reach the height of a six story building. Smaller reefs also grow in the Salish Sea on the south coast, just outside Vancouver and Victoria. BC truly has a sea of glass!
Natural Solution to Climate Change
These marine animals are an integral part of a healthy marine habitat. Glass sponge reefs provide shelter for marine life including rockfish and shrimp, store carbon on the ocean floor, filter bacteria out of the water, and fertilize the ocean. The sea of glass supports thriving culture and livelihoods for coastal communities.
With skeletons made of silica, these sponges are extremely fragile. Bottom contact fishing such as bottom trawling and shrimp trapping easily shatter their bodies. Sediment on the seafloor kicked up by these fishing methods also causes them to “choke” and stop feeding.
Glass sponge reefs provide habitat for economically important rockfish and shrimp
Strong Permanent Protection for the Sea of Glass
CPAWS-BC looks to protect the Sea of Glass by calling on the federal government to ban bottom contact fishing on or near glass sponge reefs with marine protected areas (MPAs) and Other Effective Conservation Measures (OECMs) such as marine refuges and fishing closures.
Strait of Georgia and Howe Sound Glass Sponge Reefs
On the south coast, the marine refuges and fishing closures of the Strait of Georgia and Howe Sound Glass Sponge Reef Conservation Initiative protect the Salish Sea’s glass sponge reefs. While not full marine protected areas, these OECMs prohibit bottom contact fishing. CPAWS-BC is calling on the federal government to make these protections more permanent since the current laws can be removed with a change in ministry leadership. We are also calling for better monitoring and enforcement because after the fact fines do not prevent fishing damage from occurring in the first place.
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For interview, please contact: Ross Jameson, Ocean Conservation Manager Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society-British Columbia 778-953-2372 firstname.lastname@example.org
Oceans Wise report recommends implementation of full protection for all of Howe Sound’s glass sponge reefs
September 1, 2020
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.
Climate change poses an urgent and even larger problem. A study cited by the Ocean Wise report included observation of glass sponge reef mortalities associated with the El Niño climate events of 2009/2010 and 2015/2016. Additionally, a study from UBC found that warming ocean temperatures and acidification drastically reduce the skeletal strength and filter-feeding capacity of glass sponges.
In March 2019, DFO announced the closure of the nine documented glass sponge reef complexes to bottom-contact fishing. A DFO report published earlier this year confirmed five more living glass sponge reefs in Howe Sound. However, these reefs are still open to bottom-contact fishing such as prawn trapping. Even if reefs are damaged, there are no threats of fines or legal recourse for the harmful activity.
Glass sponges are under siege from multiple threats. Without the chance to grow and expand, glass sponges will lock away less carbon, exacerbating the effects of climate change. “By removing the threat of bottom-contact fishing, glass sponges will be better able to adapt to a changing ocean,” says Ross Jameson, Ocean Conservation Manager for Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society British Columbia Chapter. We need the immediate designation of fishing closures for all of Howe Sound’s glass sponge reefs to protect these rare creatures for generations.
For interview, please contact:
Ross Jameson, Ocean Conservation Manager Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society-British Columbia 778-953-2372 email@example.com
Resources Miller A, Chapman J, Dearden A, Ross P (Editor). 2020. Ocean Watch Átl’ḵa7tsem/Txwnéwu7ts/Howe Sound Edition 2020. Ocean Wise Research Institute, Ocean Wise Conservation Association, Vancouver, B.C., Canada. 388 pp. ISBN: 978-1-7772408-2-0 available online at:https://ocean.org/wp-content/uploads/OceanWatch-HoweSoundReport2020-online.pdf
Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society-British Columbia
New research prompts call for urgent protection of BC’s glass sponge reefs
For Immediate Release
June 26, 2020
Unceded Coast Salish Territory/Vancouver, BC – 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.
“Marine protected areas will not only protect glass sponge reefs from physical damage caused by bottom-contact fishing, they will also act as natural climate solutions,” says Ross Jameson, Ocean Conservation Manager for CPAWS-BC. MPAs offer long term protection, prevent further damage and absorb carbon to help beat back climate change.
For two decades, CPAWS-BC has worked to establish stronger protection for BC’s known glass sponge reefs. In 2017, Hecate Strait/Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reefs Marine Protected Area protected over 2000 km2 of glass sponge reefs off BC’s north and central coast. 17 fisheries closures protect reefs in Howe Sound and the Strait of Georgia. Unprotected glass sponge reefs in Howe Sound and Chatham Sound need urgent attention.
This new study underscores the pressure glass sponges face to adapt quickly to survive in a changing ocean. Protecting these unique biological treasures will not only safeguard economically important marine life, but also ensure the reefs can remain a source of awe and wonder for generations to come.
For interview, please contact:
Ross Jameson, Ocean Conservation Manager
Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society-British Columbia
We would like to recognize the many other organizations who have worked tirelessly to conserve this unique habitat: Marine Life Sanctuaries Society, David Suzuki Foundation, Coastal Ocean Research Institute, Subsea Society of Howe Sound, Canadian Marine Environment Protection Society, and Sunshine Coast Conservation Society.
Stevenson, A., Archer, S.K., Schultz, J.A. et al. Warming and acidification threaten glass sponge Aphrocallistes vastus pumping and reef formation. Sci Rep 10, 8176 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-65220-9
Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – British Columbia Chapter (CPAWS-BC) protects wilderness in every corner of BC and deep into the ocean. CPAWS-BC supports the creation of large, well-managed, connected protected areas where native plants and animals thrive, now and forever; and where people and communities can live off the land and ocean without impacting the ability of future generations to do the same.
In the past 50+ years, CPAWS has played a lead role in protecting over half a million square kilometres – an area bigger than New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador put together.
How sound are the protections for Howe Sound’s glass sponge reefs?
By Sonia Singh Jind, 25 January 2019
When scientists stumbled upon an assembly of strange, blanched formations growing overtop of one another and stretching out for hundreds of kilometers across the seafloor, they had no idea they were looking at living glass sponge reefs.
Until then, these reefs were thought to have been extinct since the Jurassic, which ended over 200 million years ago. Scientists are not quite sure why glass sponge reefs seem to have only survived off the west coast of BC, but the answers may give us insight into why these ghostly reef-builders are so rare.
Individual glass sponges – simple animals that use silica (or glass) to build their skeleton – are found in several locations throughout the world, such as the west coast of the United States and Antarctica. However, glass sponge reefs are extremely rare, and seem to only occur in certain environmental conditions. These complex structures form when individual glass sponges grow on top of one another, eventually forming towering structures that can reach up to 20m high.
The most extensive glass sponge reefs have been found in Hecate Strait, where they cover hundreds of kilometers of sea floor. Smaller reefs have since been discovered in the Strait of Georgia, Chatham Sound, and the Broughton Archipelago, with 14 of those in Howe Sound. It appears that the unusually high silica and oxygen in the water, an optimal level of water flow, food supply, and temperature, make the coast of BC and Alaska the only known coastline to support glass sponge reefs in the entire world.
The foundation of ocean ecosystems
Glass sponge reefs aren’t just pretty to look at, they are also ecologically important in a variety of ways. The 3D structures these reefs provide on an otherwise almost barren seafloor create habitat and areas of refuge for seastars, prawns, lobster, and a variety of fish, including halibut, cod, herring, and the threatened rockfish.
Sponges have the amazing ability to filter 95% of bacteria in the water. You can think of a field of glass sponges as the ocean’s natural filtration system, filtering huge amounts of ocean water every second and producing ammonia that other organisms need for life processes, thereby supporting ecosystem health.
Just as their name suggests, these sponges are fragile. Their texture is similar to meringue, so they break easily. Despite their fragility, they can live thousands of years: some reefs on BC’s coast have been aged at 9,000 years old. They likely survived, in part, because they live so far from the surface of the ocean and away from human contact. But recently humans have begun to exploit the ocean at depths which were previously unreachable, and the threats to this fragile species have intensified.
Human activities such as bottom-trawl fishing and down-rigging can easily destroy these ancient 9,000 year old reefs in seconds. Prawn and crab traps hitting the bottom, the laying of submarine cables and damage from anchors can all cause physical damage and stir up sediment in the water, smothering the sponges. Sponges stop feeding when covered in sediment, eventually leading to starvation and death. Glass sponges take over 200 years to grow just 1 metre in height, so when they are damaged, they could take hundreds of years to recover, if ever.
Protecting glass sponge reefs
CPAWS-BC has been working on glass sponge reef protection for over 25 years, drawing global attention, educating the public, and urging the government to protect these sites of international importance. In 2002 Oceans and Fisheries Canada (DFO) created fishing closures prohibiting bottom-trawling over the glass sponge reefs. But this was not enough. The reefs needed permanent protection. It took another 8 years before DFO announced Hecate Strait (the site where the reefs were first discovered in 1987) as an Area of Interest under consideration to become a Marine Protected Area (MPA).
Finally, in 2017, after a strong push for higher protection standards, CPAWS-BC rejoiced as the Hecate Strait & Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reefs MPA was established. The reefs in Hecate Strait are currently protected within 150m around them.
While this MPA and the preceding fishing closures over the Strait of Georgia reefs were major wins towards protecting our glass sponge reefs, there are over 20 glass sponge reefs in Howe Sound, Chatham Sound and the Broughton Archipelago that still need protection.
CPAWS-BC is currently leading the charge to ensure the ancient reef-building animals in Howe Sound are protected from bottom-contact fishing and undersea pipelines, both of which pose an immediate threat to their survival.