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Irrepressible Howe Sound

An enigmatic fjord swirling with the after-effects of industrial activity and shining with remarkable comebacks of nature



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There are four glass sponge reefs in Hecate Strait in Queen Charlotte Sound and two in nearby Georgia Strait. Estimated to be more than 9,000 years old and spanning more than 700 square kilometres, the reefs have been dubbed the Amazon rainforest of the ocean.

A possible threat to the sponges and other marine life is heating up at Halkett Bay, a small inlet on Gambier Island in Howe Sound. The Artificial Reef Society of B.C. has been spearheading a campaign to sink a naval vessel there as a site for recreational diving.

Ramona C. de Graaf, a marine biologist and forage fish specialist, wrote a letter to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in September 2011 expressing her concern over the lack of surveys for critical fish and marine habitat.

She worries that heavy metals, such as lead & copper, and PCBs, will escape from the ship.

"Placing a very large point-source of contaminants in Halkett Bay in the immediate proximity of habitats used as spawning and rearing habitats of fish seems counter to the decades of efforts to restore the health of the Strait of Georgia," de Graaf wrote.

Forage fish species such as Pacific herring, Pacific sand lance and surf smelt are the cornerstone of the marine food web connecting zooplankton to a host of secondary predators, including salmon and the provincially-listed coastal cutthroat trout. Both Chinook and Coho salmon feed on sand lance both as juveniles and as adults.

Numerous fish, seabird, and marine mammal populations are in precipitous decline in B.C., notes de Graff, and scientists have started to look at the link between forage fish biomass reduction and these declining populations.

Successfully rebuilding endangered populations and local salmon stocks may rely, in part, to protecting local forage fish stocks, she says.

Surf smelt and Pacific sand lance use intertidal sandy-gravel beaches for spawning, high on the beach near the log line. But this unique spawning behaviour puts them directly in a zone vulnerable to shoreline modifications, areas de Graaf would like to see factored into B.C. land-use practices.

Howe Sound as a dump site

According to Buchanan, a lot of the issues facing Howe Sound are linked to the mentality of viewing the ocean as a disposal site.

There are several federally-designated dumping sites in Howe Sound right now and he points out that in 2008, more than 15,000 cubic metres of material — enough to fill 2,500 dump trucks — was dumped at the Watts Point dump site, north of Britannia Beach, to make room for upgrades to the Sea to Sky Highway.

"What are you killing on the bottom of the ocean?" he asks, adding he believes there is a lot down there that hasn't been studied.