Government strategy details protection of reefs

A federal strategy to help conserve glass sponge reefs off the coast of B.C. has raised hopes for the protection of reefs in Georgia Strait, including off Gabriola Island.

A federal strategy to help conserve glass sponge reefs off the coast of B.C. has raised hopes for the protection of reefs in Georgia Strait, including off Gabriola Island.

The Pacific Region Cold-Water Coral and Sponge Conservation Strategy, released earlier this month by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, includes short- and long-term goals for the coral and sponge reefs, the largest found in Hecate Strait between Haida Gwaii and the B.C. mainland.

The reefs, some as old as 9,000 years and a key component of the marine ecosystem, were damaged by bottom trawling and other fishing activities. Trawling around the reefs in Hecate Strait was banned in 2007.

Sabine Jessen, national manager of oceans program for the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said the strategy doesn’t specifically identify smaller sponge reefs in Georgia Strait off Gabriola, Galiano and Bowen islands and in Howe Sound, but it was developed knowing the importance of those areas.

“We were doing a lot of pushing for the sponges in Hecate Strait to get those fishing closures put in place and get them to Marine Protected Area status, but also learning about all these smaller sponge reefs in the Strait of Georgia,” she said. “In a way, those smaller reefs in the Strait of Georgia are more vulnerable than the ones up in Hecate Strait because they are in much shallower water, so many more activities could impact them.”

Bruce Reid, of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s ecosystems management branch, said they are aware of the smaller reefs in Georgia Strait and the strategy provides a framework for evaluating them and what, if any, appropriate measures should be put in place to protect them.

“We put out this strategy because [the sponges] are a species that are vulnerable and we’re getting more information about them every year through studies,” he said. “We’ve identified them as being an important part of a healthy ecosystem.”

Jessen calls the strategy a good start as it lays out how Fisheries and Oceans is going to begin to address the issue.

“It’s going to be ongoing work for us to make sure they’re implementing various measures in the strategy and making sure they have a more detailed plan for putting it in place,” she said.

Reid said with the sponge reefs particularly vulnerable to human activities including fishing, there are a number of options in terms of what measures can be employed.

“From a fishing perspective, it could be gear restrictions or seasonal or permanent closures for certain activities that would impact the bottom community,” he said. “We haven’t put in place any restrictions until we do some more analysis, but we’ve informed the fishing industry so they are aware of the reefs that are of concern.”

Jessen said the society has been working on protection of the sponge reefs for close to five years.

“We thought we could get this done in about a year, get some measures put into fishing management plans so we start to have some interim protection for sponges and corals and look at where it fits into the marine protected areas,” she said. “There’s still lots of work to do but the strategy is an important step. It does commit the department to doing work and it calls attention to the fact these are important features to our ecosystem.”

For more on the cold-water coral and sponge strategy, please go to www.pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/oceans/protection/oth-aut-eng.htm.