We occasionally publish articles in SpruceRoots
magazine, a journal providing perspectives and promoting discussion on
issues that affect Haida Gwaii. Please find links to these articles for
reading on the website or for download from the SpruceRoots
website ~ www.spruceroots.org.
Be sure to look through the SpruceRoots stories
for other articles on marine issues, including salmon farming and BC
offshore oil and gas.
· December 2000
by Lynn Lee
Discover. To be the first to find or
find out about.
The first hint of something strange surfaced in
1984 during a sea-floor mapping exercise in Hecate Strait. Geological
Survey of Canada (GSC) scientists observed through sonar imaging,
unexpected permeable bumps over huge areas of the sea floor. Similar
acoustic anomalies, described as an "amorphous, irregular seismic
signature having no coherent internal reflectors," were observed again
in 1986, this time during a survey in Queen Charlotte Sound. In 1987,
GSC scientists Kim Conway and Vaughn Barrie discovered the sponge reef.
It was "something that succeeded even our expectations," says Conway.
Unique. Being the only one of a
It's unique and it's big. It is the only living
bioconstruction of its kind known in the world. And it lives in our
backyard - four sponge reefs, around 9,000 years of age, 700 kilometres
squared in combined surface area and up to 18 metres high, all under
150 to 250 metres of water.
The posts and beams of the sponge reef are
siliceous sponges of the Order Hexactinosa, providing the rigid
framework necessary for reef formation. Like the building of coral
reefs, young sponges attach and grow upon the older generation,
laterally and vertically extending the reef. The reef complexes exist
in three continental shelf troughs from Hecate Strait south to Queen
Charlotte Sound. The northernmost reef sits 10 nautical miles offshore
from Banks Island; the southernmost is 50 nautical miles north of
Extinct. Of an animal or plant
species having no living representative.
Siliceous sponge reefs were thought extinct.
Prehistoric sponge reefs stretched in a discontinuous belt 7000
kilometres - three and a half times longer than the Great Barrier Reef
off northeast Australia - across the northern Tethys to the margin of
the Atlantic Ocean at a time when part of modern Europe, as we know it,
was under the sea. Today, fossilized outcrops extend across Romania,
Poland, Germany, Switzerland, France, Spain, Portugal, off Newfoundland
and Oklahoma. The sponge reef on our coast is a living organism
ecosystem that will provide insight into the Jurassic paleoenvironment
which supported the vast Tethys sponge reef.
The first recorded hexactinellid sponges shared
oceans with coelacanth fish (thought extinct until discovered off the
coast of South Africa in 1938) during the Devonian Period 400 million
years ago. Sponge reef distribution climaxed in the late Jurassic
Period 140 million years ago, with the formation of the northern Tethys
reef. This fossilized sponge reef from the Age of Dinosaurs is the
largest bioconstruction ever known to exist. Following the Jurassic
Period, sponge reef distribution dramatically declined to apparent
extinction during the Cretaceous Period 65 million years ago.
Science. The systematic study of the
nature and behaviour of the material and physical universe, based on
observation, experiment, and measurement, and the formulation of laws
to describe these facts in general terms.
Up until 1987, sponge reef science was limited to
description and study of the fossilized northern Tethys sponge reefs
and similar areas. Paleontologist Manfred Krautter, at the University
of Stuttgart in Germany, spent years studying the fossil sponge reefs
of Spain, Germany and Portugal. But, in 1987, the dinosaurs came to
life. Underwater photography in Hecate Strait captured live
irregularly-shaped sponges, with random fingerlike projections and a
large central cavity. Over two years, GSC scientists map-ped the
location and extent of the sponge reefs; mollusc shells embedded in
core samples allowed the reef to be aged by carbon-dating.
In 1999, Canadian and German scientists, including
Conway and Krautter, embarked on a joint research program to unlock to
secrets of the sponge. Funded by the Geological Survey of Canada and
the University of Stuttgart, the Canadian Coast Guard vessel John P.
Tully cruised over the reefs. Aboard were a team of scientists and
sophisticated geophysical surveying equipment. A Delta submersible
(equipped with underwater still and video cameras and a mechanical
maneuvering arm with a grab sampler and super sucker slurp gun)
provided images, picked up specimen rocks and sponges, and excavated
sediment. At one point during the survey, it took five hours, traveling
at speeds of 1 to 2 nautical miles per hour, for the submersible to
cross the reef.
Forty hours of videotapes and nearly two thousand
35mm slides later, the scientists fastidiously identified species and
their abundance through the sampled sites. Marine organisms noted to
date include annelid worms, bryozoans, bivalves, gastropods, spider
crabs, box crabs, shrimps, prawn, sea stars, urchins, brittle stars and
rockfishes. Initial observations suggest that the sponge reef provides
benthic habitat for a wide variety of organisms and that the local
ecology of the reef is different than that outside the reef area. For
the first time anywhere, hexactinellid reefs were studied by direct
How did these sponge reefs form?
First, a special set of environmental
circumstances provided good attachment sites, allowing the sponge to
grow. About 15 to 13 thousand years ago, when glaciers covering much of
Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound began to melt, sea levels were
about 150m lower than they are today. Icebergs scoured the continental
shelf, leaving marks at modern depths over 250m. During the Holocene
Period 9,000 years ago, sponge reef construction started on
iceberg-ploughed berms of coarse gravel.
Second, the hexactinosan sponges that form the reef construction are a
special type of hexactinellid sponge; the interwoven fabric of spicules
is fused by an overcoat of silicon dioxide, allowing the sponge
skeleton to remain intact after death, thus providing the building
blocks for reef formation.
Third, there was a balance between sediment coming
into the area and sponge survival and growth, allowing the reef to
persist and develop over geologic time. In a process similar to sand
and silt dropping out of river water in lower velocity backeddies and
off-channel areas, sediment deposits out of sea water as it travels
into lower velocity eddies created by the rough surface of the reef.
The Building Blocks
Sponges of all kaleidoscopic shapes, sizes and
colours belong to the Phylum Porifera. Over 10,000 species are known
worldwide, from the equator to the poles, from shallow tidepools to
deep ocean trenches. Largely unchanged in basic form since the Devonian
Period, hexactinellid (glass) sponges are characterized by their
siliceous spicules (inanimate crystals of silica or calcium carbonate)
which consist of six rays intersecting at right angles (similar to a
toy jack). The spicules (hexactines) are interwoven throughout the
sponge body. Although numerous sponge species exist on the reef, three
form the framework of the reef: Aphrocallistes vastus, Chonelasma calyx
and Farrea occa.
Sponges are distinct, having the most simple body
structure of all multi-cellular animals. A sponge is typically composed
of an outer layer (cortex) and an inner layer filled with spicules and
organic fibres. Water, the lifeblood of the sponge, is drawn into the
organism through innumerable small openings (ostia) which perforate the
outer surface, acting as gateways to a labyrinth of internal canals and
chambers. Lining the walls of the labyrinth, millions of flagellated
cells beat vigorously to sweep water through the sponge body,
simultaneously trapping food particles for energy. Much like blood in
our circulatory system, water also transports oxygen to internal cells
while removing cellular waste products. In the reef sponges, filtered
water is expelled through a central cavity (osculum).
Incredibly efficient filter feeders with a
predilection for bacteria and other organic debris, a typical sponge
can filter four to five times its body volume every minute. At this
rate, a basketball-sized sponge would process several thousand litres
of water each day. A sponge reef complex covering an area of 700km2
two and a half times the size of Louise Island - with a
presumed average height of 0.5m, would therefore filter 1.75 trillion
litres of sea water per day - roughly equivalent to 6 times the volume
of Yakoun Lake or 500 times the daily discharge volume of the Yakoun
Individual sponge mounds, which initially look
symmetrical and circular, develop irregular shapes as suspended
sediment settles on the mounds through slowing of tidally-driven
currents. As sediment accumulates, individual and coalescing mounds
develop and tend to elongate in the direction of prevailing seabed
currents. These reefs represent the only significant post-glacial
deposits throughout much of the continental shelf since negligible
amounts of sediment settle outside of the sponge reefs. Interestingly,
the marine sediments trapped in the reef contain up to 3% organic
carbon as high as values found in the sediments of productive
Today, the reef occurs both as mounds (bioherms)
and as sheets (biostromes). The bioherms are steep-sided formations up
to 18m six stories high; The more extensive
biostromes are several metres thick and cover many square kilometres
one square kilometre encompasses 75 typical city blocks. Any
given reef complex is composed of bioherms and biostromes of varying
shapes, sizes and densities.
Unlike many sponges which are reduced to a mat of
loose spicules once their organic matrix has decomposed, dead
hexactinosan sponges retain their shape as they are buried by clay-rich
sediment. This burial process protects the siliceous skeletons from
dissolving in sea water. Building on the skeletons of previous
generations, live sponges can be over a metre high. With an estimated
maximum growth rate of 1 cm per year, these sponges are over 100 years
The "living dinosaurs" are known no where else in the world. These
sponge reefs are a key to the past, to unlocking the secrets of the
life and times of the largest bioconstructed organism ever to live on
earth. And we know very little about them. Do more sponge reefs exist?
Are the reefs limited to their present habitat? What are the
environmental conditions that allow the sponge reef to persist? What is
the role of the sponge reef in the continental shelf ecosystem? What
are the ecological effects of all that water filtering? How do the
sponge reefs reproduce? Countless questions remain to be answered. As
Conway concludes, "It's all new to science, no one knows these things."
No one knows what extraordinary secrets remain hidden in the heart of
Lynn Lee is the Haida Gwaii
local coordinator for the World Wildlife Fund.
Tonnes O’Bucks · Febuary
by Lynn Lee
For over 7,000 years, coastal First Nations people
along the British Columbia coastline harvested abalone for food,
decoration and currency for trade. Harvesting was by hand picking in
the intertidal at low tides and by using a two-pronged spear able to
reach down 6 feet below the surface. Diving was not known as a harvest
method and thus, only the intertidal and a very small portion of the
upper subtidal abalone population was exploited by traditional First
Nations fisheries. In the early days, Haida people traveling to the
Skeena and the Nass Rivers had also sold dried abalone to the Chinese.
For perhaps 100 years, but certainly since the
advent of SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) in the
1950s, a small recreational fishery for abalone has existed. Prior to
the abalone harvesting closure in 1990, most areas of the B. C. coast
were open to a daily bag limit of 12 abalone over 100mm shell length.
Around 1910, the first recorded commercial abalone
fisheries in BC took place around Haida Gwaii, with canning stations at
Jedway Bay and Rose Harbour, and drying stations at Murchison Island.
At the same time, canning activities were also reported in Bella Bella.
By 1913, all but the Jedway Bay cannery was closed, with Jedway
continuing sometime past 1926. Between 1913 and 1952, little is known
about the fishery, although harvest levels were suspected to be quite
low, ranging from 6.4 tonnes in 1922 to 30.6 tonnes in 1928.
With the advent of SCUBA in the early 1950s,
commercial landings of abalone became more consistent. Between 1952 and
1971, an average of 7.71 tonnes of abalone was harvested every year,
with a maximum landing of ~58 tonnes in 1964. During this period, the
product was sold on the domestic market, fresh to restaurants and
seafood stores, bringing prices between $0.15 per kg in 1954 and $0.92
per kg in 1970. In the 1950s, much of the abalone harvest occurred on
the south coast. In the 60s and early 70s, about half the harvest came
from each of the north and south coasts.
About thirty years ago, the large-scale commercial
harvest of abalone began. Abalone was one of many "developing fishery"
species being harvested by the BC diving fleet and fishermen were
testing the waters for monetarily valuable species. Prior to 1976, the
harvest was open to anyone who had a personal fishing license and,
after 1968, an unlimited "C" license (granted to anyone having a vessel
with approved fish-holding space). The fishery was regulated with only
a minimum size limit, the philosophy being that this limit was
sufficient to sustain the abalone population.
Precipitated by numerous factors including
restricted access to salmon and roe herring fisheries (causing
fishermen to look for new fishing opportunities), unrestricted access
into abalone and other "developing" fisheries (including geoducks, red
urchins and prawns), developing technology moving from day-boats to
freezer-boats (allowing fishermen to fish more remote areas for longer
periods of time) and increased demand and prices from Japan (between
1972 and 1976, the landed value increased 3-fold to $3.14 per kg),
abalone landings reached a record high of 274 tonnes in 1976. In less
than a year, the commercial harvest took more than the 4 previous years
combined (1972 to 1975) and possibly more than the 62 years before that
(1910 to 1971).
In 1976, fishery managers realized that minimum
size limits were not enough. Abalone was in demand and the price on was
rising rapidly. Suddenly, abalone was a valuable commodity. Over the
next 2 years, fisheries management attempted to control abalone harvest
levels to no avail. Despite the introduction of limited licensing,
limited number of divers, reduction in fishing season, minimum size
limits, changes in harvesting procedures and requirements for activity
log books, landings increased unabated. The 1977 landings totaled 428
tonnes coastwide, over 8 months of fishing from 29 licenses, with
almost all the catch coming out of North Coast waters. In fact, since
1976, consistently over 75% of the landings occurred from the North
Coast and much of that was harvested from Area 1 (north Graham Island)
and Area 2E (east Moresby Island) around Haida Gwaii.
Attempting to reduce the catch to ~255 tonnes in
1978, DFO opened the fishery to 27 licenses for only 3 months
resulting in a total catch of 433 tonnes! Further management action was
taken, limiting the fishery to a total overall quota and dividing the
total quota equally among all 26 license holders, resulting in Canada's
first Individual Vessel Quota (IVQ) management system. To ease the
fisheries into this new regime, the 1979 season was divided into 2
phases: 113 tonnes was taken as an open fishery which lasted
18 days and the remaining 113 tonnes, equally divided into
IVQs, lasted almost 7 months. The pressure for each individual
fisherman to get as much as possible as fast as possible was relieved.
The pressure on the BC abalone population,
however, was not relieved. Fishery independent stock assessment of the
abalone population was initiated after the distressing record harvest
in 1976. Prior to 1976, only anecdotal information was available. Rough
estimates made in the early 1980s indicated that the density of abalone
decreased by 60 to 90% in harvested areas of the North Coast between
1976 and 1978. Later estimates indicated an 80% overall decrease in
density along east Moresby Island between 1978 and 1984. Although
patchy distribution of abalone make the stocks difficult to assess, it
was clear that a precipitous decline in population had occurred since
the start of assessment in 1976. The serial depletion of B. C. northern
abalone stocks was underway.
After 1979, quotas continued to be reduced year
after year as prices continued to increase. By 1987, the overall quota
for the fishery was set at 47 tonnes and the price had reached over $18
per kg. In December 1990, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) perceived a
problem. Under threat of abalone population collapse, DFO closed
commercial, recreational and First Nations fisheries for northern
abalone, in hopes that the population would naturally rebuild.
Over the short, sad course of the commercial fishery, more than 750
tonnes of northern abalone were taken around Haida Gwaii, including 72
tonnes from Cumshewa Inlet over one year alone.
Today, the legal harvest of northern abalone
remains closed along the British Columbia coast. Despite 10 years of
fishery closure, continuing stock assessment by DFO shows no apparent
increase in the abalone population around Haida Gwaii. Decreasing
abalone densities and declining numbers of monitoring sites showing
abalone presence suggest that serial depletion of larger formerly
legal-sized abalone continues today. Clouded by an illegal harvest of
abalone whose history is as long as the closure and whose breadth has
been estimated at up to 5 times the former legal quota, solid
explanations for the continued population decline remain elusive.
Possibilities? Overharvesting, poor or periodic survival of
juveniles, natural predation, environmental factors affecting survival
of one or many life stages, poaching and lack of enforcement, and
reduced kelp bed areas since elimination of sea otters.
In time, the answers may become clear In
the meantime, restoration of a healthy marine environment and community
stewardship of remaining abalone populations remains key to their
· Febuary 2001
by Lynn Lee
The life of an abalone begins with conception.
Unlike our familiar concepts, abalone conception doesn't begin inside a
mature animal it occurs in the seawater column! Abalone are
broadcast spawners adult abalone of separate sexes release
millions of eggs and sperm into the water and there it must meet. A
rather optimistic way to get together in all that fluid space! As you
can imagine, many eggs and many sperm must be released at the same time
in the same place for fertilization to succeed. To help the process
along, when abalone spawn, mature adults congregate in the shallow
subtidal, gathering in relatively high densities on the peak of the
highest rock in the area - being higher when sperm is released gives
eggs a greater chance of encountering it. Adding to the excitement,
they sometimes balance on top of one another up to 6 abalone tall
all to get that extra high! In BC, spawning tends to occur
between June and August.
Within several days, the eggs hatch, beginning the
free-swimming larval phase of the abalone life cycle. The first stage
is a very small larvae called a Trochophore, which does not need to eat
because it is equipped with its own yolk sac for energy. The
trochophore larva moves upwards in the water column, attracted to
light, thus increasing its travel opportunities on ocean currents
this is really the abalone's only chance to visit wider parts
of the neighbourhood. In a couple more days, a larval shell starts to
form and the trochopore transforms into the second stage of larval life
as a Veliger that is no longer attracted to the light. Within 5 to 8
days of hatch, the larva undergoes metamorphosis, turning into a very
very small abalone ready to spend life roaming the rocks.
When juvenile abalone are ready, chemical signals
emitted from particular types of algae, including encrusting red
coralline algae, compel the larva to undergo metamorphosis and settle.
Juvenile animals less than one or two year old tend to be found in
crustose red algae gardens generally deeper than adult animals. It is
thought that juveniles settle in deeper water usually deeper
than the kelp zone down to 15m deep. As they grow, abalone
migrate upward such that most adults are within 10m of the water
As juveniles, abalone tend to be cryptic, hiding
under rocks and in crevices for most of the day, as they get larger
they tend to hide less such that by the time they reach 100mm in shell
length, they are all "exposed". The story is that younger smaller
abalone have to worry more about being eaten than their larger friends
and therefore, the smaller animals need to hide to survive.
When they are very young and small, juvenile
abalone must eat very tiny plants. Grazing first on diatoms
(single-celled phytoplankton) and bacteria which collect on the surface
layer of encrusting red coralline algae, the abalone moves on to scrap
the surface layer of the coralline algae. By 6 to 13 weeks of age,
crustose red algae dominate the abalone food palette. As they grow
larger, abalone tend to move around less, preferring to graze less and
spend more time trapping drift algae for food. But not just any food
will do! Experiments show that as adults, abalone prefer bull kelp
(Nereocystis) and giant kelp (Macrocystis) over other kelps.
When an abalone will fit into size 8 shoes is not
as consistent as you might think. The growth rates of abalone are
highly variable, depending on numerous environmental factors such as
the quantity and quality of available food, the frequency and magnitude
of storm conditions (exposure). At each extreme, abalone fortunate
enough to settle in a protected kelp forests with plenty of high
quality drift algae will tend to grow much faster and to a larger
maximum size than those who settled in a high exposure kelp forest with
little drift algae. Interestingly like tomato plants taken
from outdoors, placed in a greenhouse and fertilized - abalone will
increase in growth rate and size when moved from difficult to more
favorable habitat conditions.
Unlike the aging of trees, salmon and geoducks,
the age of abalone cannot be determined by counting growth rings.
Although abalone do have seasonal growth cycles for example,
little shell growth during periods of high egg and sperm production
annual growth ring formation is not consistent. Measuring,
tagging and re-measuring of individual animals a year later has been
the only reliable indicator of natural growth rates. From these data
points, growth curves generated for abalone suggest that it takes at
least 6 years, and more often 7 or 8 years, for an abalone to reach
100mm in shell length (significant because this was the minimum size
limit of the commercial and recreational harvest). By 3 years of age
(~50mm length), gonads are maturing and by 4 years of age, individuals
are generally spawning. Like many long-lived slow-growing animals,
though, the level of egg production increases rapidly with size after
maturity, reach a climax age then decline in egg production beyond
that. The largest northern abalone ever documented was 165mm in length,
at least 15 years old and perhaps up to 50 years old!
Wanted to Know About Abalone but were Afraid to Ask ·
by Lynn Lee
The first people of Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte
Islands call them by many different names, among them gaalahlyan, galgaahliiyaang
and galguuhlkyan. In
Haida legend, it is said that the northern abalone descended from the
northwestern toad during k'áy gang, the "Time of the Raven."
For thousands of years, they harvested northern
abalone for food along rocky intertidal shores all around Haida Gwaii.
They were traditionally harvested by hand picking animals exposed in
the intertidal at low tides and by spearing animals down to six feet
below the water surface.
Traditionally, the two-pronged seafood spear,
kíit'úu, was made by lashing (using spruce root
twine) two sharpened pieces of huckleberry stem to each side of a long
pole made of spruce or red cedar. Collection of abalone using this
spear required practice and skill. If the animal was speared and not
twisted off the rock in the same motion it might adhere to the rock
with its strong foot and be hard to retrieve, if the animal was speared
too lightly, it might be knocked off the rock and fall away to depths
beyond reach. Once in hand, the foot of the abalone was removed and
eaten raw - sometimes the gonads, ts'iikál, were also eaten.
Abalone shell was used for decoration and currency, although Skidegate
Haida preferred to use the shell of gwúlxa, the California
red abalone, to the indigenous northern abalone.
To science, they are marine snails of the Phylum
Mollusca, taxonomically Classed Gastropoda, literally translated as
"stomach foot" - quite a culinary distinction. Their scientific name is
Haliotis kamtschatkana. Abalone are prevalent throughout the
northeastern Pacific Ocean, found from the northern tip of Sitka Island
in Alaska, south throughout British Columbia, and down through the
states of Washington, Oregon and California, and into the Baja. They
are also the northernmost species of all the haliotids (over 90 species
are described worldwide).
In Canada, they are commonly known as the
"northern" abalone and in the United States, they are called "pinto"
for their mottled white appearance.In the waters of BC, Alaska and
Washington, northern abalone are most abundant and do not share their
space with other abalone species. In California, they share waters with
the red, pink, white, black, green, threaded and flat abalone.
Divers surveying abalone sites.
The dynamics of abalone populations remain an
enigma to science. They are a mysterious species, they are difficult to
age, individuals growth rates vary wildly depending on conditions where
they live, their reproductive success rate is not known, their survival
rate through different life stages is unknown and they like to keep
people guessing about how long they live.
For thousands of years, northern abalone
populations co-existed with the voracious sea otter, a formidable
predator that can eat one-third of its body weight a day. Although it
seems a contradiction, they lived together in a harmony of balance. The
relationships are complex and not fully understood, but in general
terms, abalone provided sea otters with one of a kaleidoscope of
invertebrate and fish food sources and sea otters provided abalone and
other creatures with ample kelp forests for shelter, food and
reproduction by controlling populations of grazing sea urchins.
About 100 years ago, the sea otter was hunted to
extinction along the shores of Haida Gwaii. In the wake of their
absence, sea otter prey species, including abalone and red sea urchins,
thrived and multiplied. Over time, the subtidal extent of kelp beds
decreased as sea urchin grazing proceeded unabated. About 50 years
after the sea otter disappeared, another predator arrived, armed with
funny looking rubber suits, masks and prying bars. Abalone populations
succumbed under commercial harvesting pressure. At first, the
commercial harvest took hundreds and thousands at a time, then starting
in 1976, hundreds of thousands were processed year after year. In three
short years, the abundance of abalone along the BC coast was reduced by
a rough estimate of 60 to 90%, marking the beginning of the collapse of
BC's northern abalone population.
Today, northern abalone live with the natural
dangers of hungry cabazons and wolf eels fish with nightmare
inspiring faces stealthy sun stars, Pacific octopus, rock
crabs, and ravens and river otters at low tide. The generally sedentary
lifestyle of the abalone is disturbed when they do a little break dance
to run from voracious sunflower stars! Less naturally, the odd
rubber-suited poacher adds additional challenge to the survival of the
On April 23, 1999, the BC northern abalone earned
the great distinction of being the first-ever Canadian marine
invertebrate to be designated a "threatened" species by the Committee
on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). No other
spineless marine creature will ever fill those shoes! In official
terms, this means that the species is "likely to become endangered if
limiting factors are not reversed".
Today, northern abalone survive in numbers much
reduced by many factors, man-made and environmental the short
and sad history of commercial fishing, large-scale illegal fishing
following abalone fishery closure in 1990, decline in rocky shore kelp
bed areas since elimination of the sea otter, changing ocean currents
and temperatures. Whatever the combination of factors, the accelerated
decline of the abalone population has largely been a consequence of
their value as a commodity in world economic markets.
The future of BC's northern abalone is in the
hands of local communities to respect and value beyond monetary
returns. Abalone are part of tradition and culture, ways of being and
living with respect for the natural world they are a vital
part of a healthy marine community, a natural treasure.
Deep Blue -
facing the ocean of issues in the marine environment · July
by Lynn Lee
It is hard to appreciate that beneath the ocean
waves there is an intensity of life that puts this terrestrial world to
shame. For many, even though we are surrounded by saltwater, the ocean
is just something we look at and admire - its changing colour, the
patterns of wave and wind that move across its surface. Some people do
have a strong connection to the sea by virtue of culture, livelihood or
the time spent as children at the seashore. But by the same token, many
don't think about what goes on beneath its surface, for in those deep
blue waters, spineless creatures, fishes and mammals thrive in
ecosystems that are the most ancient on the planet.
Because the marine environment is largely
unknown to us on land, we must actively think about it to begin to
understand and appreciate it. Unlike salmon which bridge the gap
between marine and freshwater environments, coming back every fall to
their spawning streams and reminding us of their presence, most marine
creatures spend all their lives in the sea. At low tide we catch a
glimpse of the intertidal creatures which have adapted to survive
“harsh” land conditions but these represent only a
fraction of the creatures thriving. Thinking about marine conservation
is paramount if we are concerned about the well-being of our marine
environment and the creatures that call it home. There is so much we do
not know about the sea, yet human pressure to further exploit the sea
continues to grow.
The BC government has declared the province open for business, they are
ready to sell and take investment on the natural resources. In the past
year alone, there has been intense pressure from the province to open
up Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound to offshore oil and gas
development. A huge wind farm is being proposed in Hecate Strait to
supply power to the mainland and the North Coast is targeted for salmon
aquaculture development. Pilot projects farming oysters and scallops
are already operating. Commercial fisheries are still active, tourism
and recreational fishing developments are on the rise and logging
companies are seeking foreshore leases for log booming sites and barge
landings as they look to log old-growth forests in remote areas of the
On a positive front, Bill C-10, an Act respecting the National Marine
Conservation Areas of Canada, has been given Royal Ascent through
Parliament, issuing in a new era of marine conservation and allowing
the proposed Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve to
move ahead. A Fisheries and Oceans led initiative to designate a Marine
Protected Area around the Bowie Seamount off the west coast of Haida
Gwaii is also under discussion. Fisheries management practices are
slowly changing with increasing public input and entwined through all
the issues and initiatives is subsistence food gathering that has been
in practice on Haida Gwaii for thousands of years.
The crux of marine conservation is this - we need to protect the
natural biological diversity in the ocean within the context of human
As an Islands community how important is the ocean to us? That question
was answered when the provincial government threatened to lift the
moratorium on offshore oil and gas development. The Islands communities
resounded with an overwhelming “No.” Diane Brown
and Jenny Cross said it best at a meeting of the Provincial Oil and Gas
Task Force consultation in Skidegate last November. They opened their
hearts to talk about their connection to the sea. They brought with
them beautiful, priceless plates of clean food from the seas and
prepared to pour oil on it, likening this act to the devastation the
oil industry can have on the environment. As Jenny stood poised with an
open container of oil, tears welled in her eyes and in the end, she
could not purposefully spoil the precious food.
Their action is the Island sentiment towards offshore oil and gas
development and the sanctity of what the sea offers. The Council of the
Haida Nation issued a press release with the Tsimshian Nation saying
they do not support lifting the oil and gas moratoriums. In their press
release they said that technology has not changed enough to accept the
risks of offshore oil and gas development - they are not prepared to
risk the natural marine heritage for the possibility of a few dollars.
Southeast of Rose Spit, there is a proposed offshore wind farm with 300
individual windmills located 500m apart, covering an area of 80km2 in
Hecate Strait. The proposed project would supply power to the mainland
and, despite the fact that the proposed wind farm is located off these
shores, Islanders only heard about the project after a press release
was issued by the federal government. The proposal was signed by Prime
Minister Chretien, perhaps in an attempt to show good faith with the
Kyoto Accord to reduce “greenhouse gas” emissions.
Each windmill would extend 80m above sea level with blades 36m long,
turning slowly day and night. Although it is alternative energy and is
the direction we need to move, there are still many questions and
concerns that need to be considered. What is the extent and magnitude
of impacts for seabirds and other birds using Hecate Strait as a forage
area and migration corridor? What are the consequences for fish and
marine mammals considering changes that will be made to the local
physical oceanography? How will the electrical fields around cables on
the seafloor affect creatures whose behaviour depend on sensing the
earth's magnetic fields?
For the Islands, there is little to no direct benefit from this wind
power project. When asked, a Uniterre company representative indicated
that it would be totally impractical, and compared our energy needs to
that of plugging a toaster directly into a main power line along the
Salmon farms are opening up on the North Coast. Open-net cage salmon
farms are being planned across Hecate Strait in Kitkatla and are
already operational near Klemtu. There are many serious issues
associated with farming of salmon. There is evidence that they
concentrate disease and parasites in the waters in and around the
cages, reputedly causing outbreaks of sea lice on wild juvenile fish.
It is also known that those diseases and parasites occur in the wild so
salmon farmers are adamant that they are not the culprits. But Alaska
has taken the lead and banned salmon farming from its waters, fearing
for the health of the wild salmon. Recent reports from Norway, where
open-net cage salmon farming has been operating much longer than in BC,
regulations show require new salmon farms to be based on land instead
of in open-net cages.
Current salmon fisheries management is wrought with contradictions. The
North Coast Chinook troll fishery was closed in early June based on
evidence that a significant percentage of the troll caught fish
originated from endangered West Coast Vancouver Island Chinook stocks.
Yet at the same time, recreational fishing including fishing lodges
continue to fish without any assessment of their impacts on those same.
And in spite of a fifteen year old provincial moratorium on development
of new fishing lodges along the BC coast, new seasonal floating lodges
continue to appear along the west coast of the Islands.
If the migration routes of these salmon are generally known and there
is an issue around endangered stocks, why can't there be closures in
the areas necessary but allow for commercial and recreational fishing
to occur in areas which would not impact stocks of concern?
Stock assessments from fisheries management agencies in BC and
Washington state show that the exploitation rate for each inshore
rockfish species must be under 1 percent of its population in order to
maintain a total mortality rate - fishing plus natural causes - of less
than 2%. The problem is that there is insufficient stock assessment
data to generate rockfish population estimates with any level of
confidence for any part of the coast. Given that, how can we manage for
separate fish species, never mind managing for ecological integrity?
In an attempt to address the lack of confidence in the management of
rockfish, a small number of Rockfish Protection Areas were designated
in the past few years by Fisheries and Oceans with input from
commercial fishers. More recently, conservation efforts led by the
Sierra Club of BC have pushed for even more stringent fisheries
management regulations to ensure the survival and sustainability of
Modern day industrial fishing methods have a huge impact on fish and
the marine environment. On the BC coast bottom trawling otherwise known
as dragging, is the method most harmful to fish habitat. Imagine fish
are living in underwater cities on the ocean floor where the variety
and abundance of life on the seafloor make up an intricate matrix that
is city-like and supports a huge number and diversity of fish. Then
imagine the fish trying to survive in the wreckage after the trawl net
has destroyed all the buildings and taken the grocery store away.
Bottom trawling is also indiscriminate in the species that it collects.
Along with fish they want to catch, trawlers also catch what is known
as “bycatch.” This is all the fish in the net that
aren't the species they want. Prior to management changes in 1997, some
of this bycatch, notably halibut, were species that trawlers were not
allowed to keep and in the early 1990s, the BC trawl fleet was catching
up to 1.5 million pounds of halibut every year, all of which went back
over the side of the boat dead. These days, bycatch of all
“unwanted” fish can still average up to 50% of the
GOING FURTHER OUT
We have been using the sea for all time. The use of the sea began with
subsistence fisheries for groups of people living along the coast.
Resources were harvested primarily for local use and trade, fishing
technology was basic, effective and selective. Relatively large numbers
of people were involved in catching, harvesting and processing the
catch from the sea. The seasons and patterns of abundance were a part
of the living culture.
Indigenous subsistence fisheries were restricted mostly to waters close
to communities. Fish was caught and had to be eaten or processed within
days and the number of fish taken at any one time was limited by the
size of fishing vessels. Fishing techniques and technology was passed
through traditional practice as was the timing and location of fish and
shellfish at different times of the year.
With European exploration and colonization of
“foreign” lands, fishing pressure expanded outward
to coastal and continental shelf areas. Foreign trade with indigenous
communities created greater demand for living marine resources that
once were only used for subsistence harvests. Since colonization, the
seas around Haida Gwaii have been subject to much industrial activity:
commercial sea otter and fur seal hunting, whaling operations, abalone
drying stations, clam canneries, salmon canneries, dogfish reduction
plants, herring reduction fisheries and more. Many of these activities
have led to catastrophic declines and the near extinction of some
Through the last century of human history, technological advances have
expanded the range and scale of modern global fisheries both in time
and space so that today, there is literally nowhere in the ocean which
has not been exploited by human fishing activity. Fishing vessels have
increased in size and capacity; with refrigeration and freezer capacity
vessels stay longer at sea and move further from shore; fish-finding
technology allows vessels to accurately locate smaller and smaller
schools of fish; and an increased efficiency in fishing gear has
reduced the number of people needed to actually fish. We know that with
current fishing technology we are able find the last school of herring
and set a net around it.
Herring stocks around the Islands are not faring well. In the last 10
years, the maximum estimated herring return to the Islands has been
less than 20,000 tonnes in any one year, and has averaged closer to
10,000 tonnes over the past ten years. In the heyday of the reduction
fisheries in 1956, about 77,500 tonnes of herring from this area were
reduced to fishmeal and oil. For four of the past 10 years, the Haida
Gwaii roe herring fishery has been closed and in spite of Haida
concerns for the depressed populations and protests about opening a roe
herring fishery this year, the commercial fishery went ahead to catch a
mere 500 tonnes, 0.6 percent of what was caught in 1956.
This year in the Strait of Georgia the herring population was estimated
at about 100,000 tonnes, a number comparable to populations during the
time of reduction fisheries in the 1920's. This shows that given the
chance, herring populations can rebound. Serious consideration needs to
be given to a total closure of the roe herring fishery around the
Islands until such time as the populations return to levels of those
seen in the past.
Despite the problems with fish populations and fisheries management, in
many ways, we are fortunate here on the Islands. There are still fish
to fish. And although far from untouched, the marine ecosystems are
still healthier than in many other areas of the BC coast. We do not
have large industrial processors such as pulp and paper mills pouring
toxic wastewater into our environment. Oil rigs and wind farms are not
on the eastern horizon and salmon farms have yet to dot our coastline.
The impact of the human population on the Islands and surrounding
waters is manageable and urban development is not a huge threat to
marine biological diversity.
FISHING DOWN THE FOOD CHAIN
Yet we are still on a path that needs examination and change. We have
seen the collapse of the social and economic fabric of East Coast
fishing communities with the near extinction of Atlantic cod and other
groundfish populations in the North Atlantic. Here, on the West Coast,
the effects of collapsing fish populations has been buffered by the
fact that we have a wide variety of species being caught in numerous
fisheries. But with the decline of salmon has come the development of
“new” fisheries such as abalone, sea urchin,
rockfish, sea cucumber, geoduck, prawn, squid and octopus.
These “new” fisheries are not necessarily being
managed better than those of the past. Most notorious is the abalone
fishery. In less than 20 years, commercial fishing for abalone drove
the species and fishery to the brink of extinction. SCUBA diving
technology allowed harvesters to collect abalone within all of its
habitat range and market prices for the delicacy were so high that both
the legal and illegal fisheries were financially rewarded. By the time
the fishery was closed, BC abalone populations were so depressed that
after 11 years of a total fishing closure, the population has not
rebounded. This problem is compounded by continued illegal fishing for
abalone that ends up for sale on the black market.
On the Islands we are moving forward and trying to make a difference to
protect the marine legacy that we have inherited. The Abalone
Stewardship Program has developed a Community Action Plan in
consultation with all Island communities. A key part of the plan is the
Abalone Stewardship Areas. Two areas are proposed, one at the north end
of the Islands and another at the south end within the proposed Gwaii
Haanas Archipelago Marine Area. In these Stewardship Areas, research is
being conducted by the Haida Fisheries Program and Fisheries and Oceans
Canada to further understand abalone and their interactions with their
habitat. Abalone “condos,” the equivalent of
artificial reefs have been put in place to observe the settlement
patterns of juvenile abalone. Control baseline sites are being surveyed
alongside experimental sites to see if artificially increasing the
density or aggregating mature abalone will assist in successful
recruiting juveniles into the population.
OLD BUT NEW
One of the inherent characteristics of indigenous subsistence fisheries
is built-in protected areas. When Haida people harvested abalone and
sea urchins at low tides with a spear, they were able to reach about 6
feet into the water. This meant that harvesting was only done in a
certain areas of their habitat and the reminder was essentially
protected from harvesting.
When harvesting was limited to coastal waters, many migratory species
such as salmon, halibut and black cod, or species with large ranges,
could not be fished in all of their habitat, so again, areas were
protected from fishing by virtue of limited access.
We need to learn from the past and establish areas of the sea where no
fishing or extractive human use is allowed. This will help maintain
marine biological diversity. Although there is no guarantee that the
absence of fishing will bring these ecosystems back to pre-industrial
conditions, they will provide an opportunity for us to learn more about
natural functioning marine ecosystems. There are many good reasons to
establish harvest refugia, including the often cited fact that they can
increase the population of commercial species outside refuge areas and
subsequently increase commercial harvests. Marine Protected Areas,
including marine reserves that exclude industrial fishing, can be used
as an effective management tool to hedge against the risk of fisheries
collapse due to management errors.
Aside from fishing, impacts from other human activities are harder to
address with protected areas as the ocean is boundless. In very
specific cases such as the proposed Gwaii Haanas Archipelago Marine
Area, where there already exists an adjacent terrestrial protected
area, localized sources of pollution and nutrient loading is minimal.
However, if oil platforms were out in Hecate Strait, waste discharge
and oil and chemical spills would equally affect the marine area,
whether or not it was part of a protected area.
If we consider the analogy that natural ecological systems are like
rubber bands, that they are elastic and dynamic and they have an
inherent amount of resilience to environmental stresses. It is like
stretching the rubber band and having it snap back to shape. As we
continue to stress the environment by removing keystone species and
animals at different levels of the food chain through fishing,
polluting with chemicals, antibiotics and nutrients, and introduction
of exotic species, we make that rubber band shorter. The resulting
ecological system is less resilient and less able to deal with
At a marine conservation meeting in Tlell this year, many Haida elders,
political figures and concerned citizens voiced their overwhelming
support for the creation of an Islands' vision, a Marine Map, for the
waters surrounding Haida Gwaii. There is a time for everything, and now
is the time to think about what we want for the ocean.
Visiting US marine conservationist Elliott Norse put it like this:
Speak with one voice and people will listen. Let me tell a story. There
was a father with five boys that constantly fought and were jealous of
each other. One day, the father tossed an arrow to the biggest and
strongest son and told him to break it. The boy did so without any
trouble. He then gave a quiver of arrows to this same son and told him
to break them all at once. The boy could not. Others will listen if you
can find a way to work together.