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Chris Harvey-Clark illuminates the glass-sponge reef many metres underwater. Photo: Adam Taylor

Citizen scientists and volunteers become gatekeepers of unique marine life form

Anthropogenic activities pose great risk to Howe Sound’s unique glass sponge reefs — wondrous marine creatures that outlived the dinosaurs

By Shaurya Kshatri , in City , on April 21, 2022

For almost three decades, Bowen Islander Adam Taylor has virtually spent all of his weekends diving in A?tl’ka7tsem/ Howe Sound off the coast of British Columbia. When he is not at his day job in downtown Vancouver working in construction and project management, he is mostly underwater, exploring the ocean floor and the wondrous marine ecology.

Lately, Taylor has been spending a chunk of his time behind a pair of binoculars scouring the Howe Sound region for fishing trawlers and prawn traps. 

“I am looking to see if there are any boats out there fishing or laying down traps in the ‘fishing-restricted’ zones within Howe Sound,” he said.

Just this past March, Taylor, who is also the president of the Underwater Council of B.C. documented the presence of over a dozen trap-marker floats in the restricted zones.

“Bans are imposed to protect the vulnerable glass-sponge reefs in Howe Sound. But commercial and recreational fishers have been flouting restrictions,” said Taylor.

The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada  has imposed bans on all commercial, recreational, Indigenous food, social and ceremonial bottom-contact fishing activities in Howe Sound. On Jan. 17, 2022, the DFO extended these bans on five additional glass-sponge reefs, which were discovered back in 2019. So, currently, all of the 17 reefs within Howe Sound are protected as marine refuge areas. 

Howe Sound Glass Sponge Reef Marine Refuges. Map: DFO

The DFO-implemented closures have been hailed by several conservationists. However, many also say that enforcement has been lacklustre. 

In order to ensure that commercial and recreational fishers are not flouting the restrictions, Taylor has been taking it upon himself to monitor infractions and report them to the DFO.

I reported 30 recreational and four commercial fishing infractions. Some of the more common ones that I encounter are prawn traps,” said Taylor.

In 2021 alone, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – British Columbia reported finding 300 prawn traps in the restricted area near Sechelt.

Like Taylor, several community members and conservationists have joined forces to protect the glass-sponge reefs within Howe Sound, including Ruth Simmons, community leader at Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative. Simmons has sounded a call for action urging community members to document instances of illicit fishing, and to report them directly to the DFO. 

“We have started the ‘reef watchers’ campaign to track infractions in Howe Sound,” she said.

To further strengthen the restrictions in place, they are working towards installing a divers’ mooring buoy to better establish where the boundaries are. 

Citizen scientist Glen Dennison at Whytecliff Park, Howe Sound.

Conservationists like Simmons and Taylor have been lobbying for protection of glasssponge reefs since they were first discovered in Howe Sound in 2011 by citizen scientist Glen Dennison.

Glass sponges were thought to have gone extinct 40 million years ago until they were discovered in Hecate Strait, some 160 nautical miles north of Vancouver Island, in 1987. 24 years later, in 2011, while doing some underwater mapping in Dorman Point, Dennison discovered more reefs in Howe Sound. He subsequently headed several other underwater expeditions to discover 12 out of the 17 reefs in the region.

Led by Dennison, the citizen-science discovery and research about glass-sponge reefs has prompted several provincial-government decisions to protect these unique marine ecosystem.  

Using his own equipment, boat and funding, Dennison is regarded as being the most instrumental figure when it comes glass-sponge conservation in B.C. In 2017, he was honoured by the Coastal Ocean Awards for his study of Howe Sound’s glass sponge reefs. An electronics wizard, Dennison devised his own mapping technique using a simple depth sounder and a DIY drop camera to traverse the depths of the ocean floor and identify the sponges.

Citizen scientist Glen Dennison’s sewer-pipe drop camera. Photo: Roy Mulder

What I did was, I actually put a camera into a PVC pipe with some high-powered lights on the side of it,” Dennison said. “We started hanging these over the pinnacles of Howe Sound, just checking what was down there.”

Dennison has been actively pushing for governmental protection of the reefs since 2011. He is now closely working with Taylor in formulating ways to better protect glass-sponge reefs from illicit fishing and bottom-trawling. 

“Protecting glass-sponge reefs is crucial for a lot of reason, one being that they are ancient marine life forms that have survived several mass extinctions,” he said.

For a long time, marine biologists have believed sea sponges to be among the very first animal groups to evolve on earth. Glass sponges, in particular, have garnered more interest from researchers because they are the rarest forms of deep-sea sponges in the world — unique to the waters of Pacific Northwest. Marine biologist Jessica Schultz is one among a growing batch of scientists interested in glass-sponge reefs. 

“They were once found all across the world but now, they exist only in handful of places in waters off the coast of British Columbia and are integral to the marine eco-system,” said Schultz, who is also the marine ambassador at the Atl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound UNESCO Biosphere Region.

According to Schultz, glass sponges constantly filter the water, feeding on bacteria and improving the water quality.

Their bodies are composed of several tiny pores and spicules made of silica that helps them filter billions of litres of water but this also makes them extremely delicate. 

Glass-sponge reefs are teeming with life and provide habitat for marine animals including salmon, rockfish, herring, halibut. Photo: Roy Mulder

“Made of silica, they are almost as delicate as a lemon meringue pie,” said Schultz.

Because of their fragile nature, even seasoned divers like Denison and Taylor need to be extremely careful while handling their camera rigs, lest they damage the reefs.

There are four common human activities posing a significant threat to glass sponge reefs. First are anchors, which if inadvertently dropped can irreparably damage the reefs. Second are downrigger fishing lines  that cut sponges and destroy their pores, which provide necessary water-filtration system. Third are prawn traps, which are also the most common infractions within the Howe Sound region. Finally: bottom trawling — a method of fishing where heavy nets are dragged along the seafloor can destroy everything in their path while also kicking up clouds of disturbed sediments that are detrimental to glass-sponge reefs. 

To protect these fragile reefs, the DFO says that it is has been working on maximizing the timing and frequency of patrols to ensure compliance with the specific closures protecting the vulnerable reefs.

DFO has been constantly patrolling the coast by sea and air to deal with infractions,” said Leri Davies, a strategic media relations advisor at DFO.

“We have been stringent about enforcing the bans and have also taken punitive measures against fishers who have violated the restrictions sometimes levying a fine of up to $25,000 for illicit fishing activities,” she said.

While Taylor lauds the DFO’s attempt in protecting glass-sponge reefs, he wants to see more boots in the ground because despite all the stringent measures he keeps finding fish trollers, and prawn traps in Howe Sound.

“Such incredibly intricate skeletons of silica, glass-sponge reefs have outlived the dinosaurs. So it would be a shame if they are pushed to the brink by careless human activities.”