Secrets of the sea revealed

🕔Apr 06, 2007

The ocean has many moods and shades, from quiet wintry ink black to roaring green with whitecaps trailing in the wind. In summer, the swirling seas can look positively tropical—turquoise blue against white sand.

Some of the wonders of the north coast marine world are obvious, like whales, sea lions and wild salmon, but the secrets beneath the surface are what few of us get to see.

On the north coast, the shallow waters of Hecate Strait cover what was once a savannah-like plain, inundated when sea levels rose after the last ice age. Just a few kilometres off the west coast of Haida Gwaii, the continental shelf drops abruptly into the immense depths of the Pacific. Among all the upthrusting landmasses, trenches, and shallow shelves is a biological richness, some of which is seen nowhere else on earth.

Northword provides a glimpse into the wonders of the northern undersea world—the unknown and unbelievable…the fantastic and the far-fetched.

Glass sponge reefs—a blast from the past

Finding these 9,000 year-old creatures in the deep waters off the coast of BC was akin to finding a herd of dinosaurs alive in the badlands of Alberta. Until 1989, scientists believed the glass sponge reef structure became extinct millions of years ago, having found nothing but fossilized evidence of a 7,000 kilometre-long reef made up of these porous animals in the mountains of Russia, Spain and Newfoundland.

Then, while doing sonar scans in the Queen Charlotte Basin and Hecate Strait, a team of Canadian geo-scientists noticed an anomaly on the ocean floor: Canada’s globally unique glass sponge reefs.

Several years after the reefs were first discovered, German paleontologist Dr. Manfred Krautter, a leading expert on fossilized sponges, read an article published by the team in a scientific journal. It changed his world. He went from climbing mountains looking for fossilized remains to heading up an undersea expedition to study the living creatures.

There are four known sites in the waters off BC’s coast where the silica-based sponge reefs can be found in structures as high as eight-story buildings. Portions of these reefs were offered temporary protection in 2002, and then the yearly trawl-fishery closures were expanded to completely enclose the reefs in 2006, says Sabine Jessen of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. But without permanent protection, the fragile ecosystem is still vulnerable.

She and Dr. Krautter are now fighting to have these globally unique creatures designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but she says Canada must commit to permanent protection and declare the sites marine protected areas first.

Who knew? Corals grow here too.

Everyone knows about the colourful tropical coral reefs accessible to divers, but it was only during the last 10 years that scientists discovered similar corals growing deep in the cold darkness off the coast of BC.

Coral is often mistaken for a plant, but it is actually composed of tiny animals known as coral polyps. These polyps join together into colonies of hundreds or even thousands. The cold-water corals of British Columbia live 30 to 80 years and grow only one or two centimeters each year.

Bottom trawling for species like rockfish, flounder, sole and lingcod in coral forests can essentially clear-cut these fragile ecosystems. Millions of kilos of broken corals, along with other non-targeted fish, are dragged up in nets each year and then tossed overboard as worthless by-catch. Worse, these unique creatures are often sacrificed for a fishery that receives some of the lowest prices per pound on the market: much of the catch ends up as lowly fish sticks.

Living Oceans Society, a Sointula Island-based non-profit organization dedicated to researching the ocean, has identified 12 areas which they believe would protect between 80 and 90 per cent of the fragile corals and sponges that are now being destroyed by bottom-trawling. They, along with many others, are advocating for a marine planning process to begin.

Deep and Shallow—The Bowie Seamount

180 kilometers off the coast of Haida Gwaii, the Pacific Ocean is more than three kilometres deep. But hidden beneath the vast expanse is a spot where the sea floor thrusts within 25 metres of the surface: the Bowie Seamount

Seamounts are common—scientists believe there may be as many as 50,000 more than 1,000 metres high in the Pacific—but the Bowie Seamount is unique in that it comes closest to the potentially wild surface waters. This shallow-water habitat forms a biological oasis for black cod, halibut and rockfish, corals, crab, sea stars and barnacles in what is otherwise an inhospitable sea.

Brian Fuhr of Smithers can attest to that. In 2003 he, his wife Kathleen and son Ian bucked a headwind for most of the night in their 32-foot sailboat Excalibur in order to reach the hidden peak.

Like the proverbial needle in a haystack, the mountain proved difficult to find. Their super-accurate, spanking-new chart led them to the requisite set of coordinates, but when they turned on the depth sounder, not even a blip appeared on the screen. After a few well-placed satellite phone calls, Fuhr’s quest to pinpoint the peak was aided by a Seattle-based National Oceanographic Atmospheric Administration employee who had been to the seamount before. The sailors had had the longitude wrong. After finding the spot, Fuhr and his son leapt into the ocean for a deep-sea dive. Being so far out to sea, he did not know what to expect. He was astounded by the diversity.

“It was like a National Geographic special, with clouds of fish above and beautiful clear water,” he said.

The area was deemed a candidate pilot protected area in 1998, and is slowly working its way to become one of the first Pacific marine protected areas.

Let’s make a plan

Protecting areas like the glass sponge reefs and the Bowie Seamount seems like a simple enough concept, but the process is complicated. A Pacific Ocean marine protected area planning process, headed by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, is now in its infancy, with many hurdles to jump before the real work can begin. DFO is used to managing single species, not ocean spaces, so a paradigm shift must take place within the federal government department.

Parks Canada is also embarking on a marine conservation plan for the waters surrounding Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site as a key western focus.

With so many players involved—commercial fishermen, government departments, tourism operators, First Nations, local communities and more—and so much potential for conflict, DFO is proceeding carefully through the maze.

Rocky start to conservation areas

What is bright and spiky and can live up to 170 years deep in the sea? Rockfish may be popular with recreational and commercial fishers alike, but they are slow-growing and do not reproduce until they are as old as 15 or 20 years. They also rarely survive catch-and-release.

DFO measured low numbers for rockfish along the coast and, to address that, introduced several Rockfish Conservation Areas in 2004/2005. Hook-and-line fishing is not allowed in these RCAs, including a few which cover much of the area used by recreational boaters and sea kayakers in Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve and Haida Heritage Site.

In 2004/05 many tour operators found themselves in contravention of Fisheries regulations they didn’t know existed. Neither they nor the Archipelago Management Board, a partnership between Parks Canada and the Haida, were consulted on the closures. With commercial gillnetting still allowed in the RCAs, tour operators are outraged that their minimal impact food-fishery is banned. They say that fishing from kayaks allows visitors to more deeply realize their connection to the sea and to appreciate the Haida culture.

Poachers’ paradise

A large-scale commercial harvest during the 1970s and ’80s led to the decimation of northern abalone in BC’s waters. By 1990 the populations were under threat of collapse, and DFO closed the commercial and recreational fisheries in hopes the population would naturally rebuild. But as of 2007, there is no evidence that this has worked.

Poaching is a big part of the problem. Enforcement officers uncovered at least three cases of abalone poaching in the spring of 2006, including 11,000 animals found in the possession of three north coast fishermen during a sting operation near Port Edward. Two other cases involved a woman caught with a cooler full of abalone as she tried to board an airplane in Prince Rupert, and a man who was selling abalone out of his Rupert hotel room.

A few years ago, conservation officers investigated a suspicious-looking freezer truck near Terrace and found it full of abalone. The haul was linked to a barge disguised as a logging operation on the central coast. Seven thousand empty abalone shells were found under the barge.
Wonderful turns weird: The case of the Jumbo Squid

Such are the dangers of the Humboldt squid that wildlife photographers who capture these creatures on film are said to wear chain-mail when on assignment. They have eight arms, and two long feeding tentacles covered with suction cups full of teeth that can unfurl three metres, dragging back hapless prey to their razor-sharp parrot-beak mouth.

Known as El Diablo Rojo (“the Red Devil”), these squid are usually found in the warm waters of the Sea of Cortez, but in recent years fishermen have been pulling them from the depths of the waters around Haida Gwaii. They showed up off northern BC by the thousands in the fall of 2004, and were sighted again in 2005. That’s when Tlell-based marine biologists Lynn Lee and Leandre Vigneault caught one with a squid-like lure, known as a hoochie, on their salmon-fishing line.

The Humboldt squid measures about 1.5 metres long—a lot smaller than the giant with dinner-plate-sized eyes that Miles O’Malley found washed up in Puget Sound in Jim Lynch’s 2005 novel The Highest Tide—but its discovery on these shores is strange enough. Some think global warming is the reason these, and other creatures, have found their way this far north.

Sea for yourself

We’ve barely breached the surface of the weird and wonderful things in the North Coast seas. To dive in farther, check out these websites:
Living Oceans Society =
Marine Matters =
Fisheries and Oceans Canada =
Canadian Parks and Wilderness Association =
The Sponge Reef Project =