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Northern BC glass sponge reef gets federal protection

(Lasia Kretzel, NEWS 1130 Photo)

Activity that may hurt or destroy animals is banned

Ottawa steps up to help protect local reef

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The federal government has announced new protections for rare glass sponge reefs found on BC’s northern coast.

Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced a Marine Protected Area of 2,410 square kilometres around the reefs in the Hecate Strait, near Haida Gwaii, banning any activities that might hurt or destroy the animals. The area includes a 200-metre buffer zone around the reefs to allow them to grow and avoid the edges being disrupted by fishing.

“This designation will permit us to preserve and protect the biological diversity, the structural habitat and the ecological function of these very exceptional reefs,” LeBlanc says.

The sponge was thought extinct of millions of years before it was discovered in 1987.

Glass sponges build skeletons out of silica, the primary component of glass and are incredibly rare and fragile, making them very vulnerable to any collisions with fishing equipment. The BC reef is estimated to be 9,000-years-old.

Fishers will still be able to use the surface waters but can’t go below 40 metres above the tallest point of the reefs. The sponge reefs are located 76 metres below the water. “We don’t believe that this particular marine protected area represents a very significant economic disruption, in fact we think it’s extraordinarily modest, and we would be open to working with the industry to make sure they can still prosecute a commercially viable fisheries,” LeBlanc says.

Christina Burridge with BC Seafood Alliance says her members have supported protecting the reef since they introduced their own voluntary closure around the area in 2000. The ban was made mandatory in 2002.

However, Canada’s largest commercial fishermen’s union says the creation of the new marine protection area will result in lost jobs and higher prices for seafood.

“We’ve been sold down the road,” Canadian Independent Fish Harvesters’ Federation’s Jim McIsaac says. “We got involved in this process to create a marine protected area for seven years under the understanding that our interests will be taken into consideration and in the last minute having them thrown out. We’re more than disappointed. These are people’s lives.”

The area is being praised by environmentalist groups.

Meanwhile, Sabine Jessen with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society says several compromises were made with the fishing industry. “Fishing is continuing in the water column above the marine protected area which is a big compromise. It actually in some ways goes totally against the science around designing marine protected areas.”

She adds now that the waters are protected, they hope to apply to make them a Heritage Site.

LeBlanc says the government is committed to meeting its target of protecting five per cent of Canada’s marine ecosystem by the end of the year, and 10 per cent by 2020.