Glass Sponge Reefs and the Need for Protection
It is vital that the government provides these unique ecosystems with immediate assessment and permanent protection before they are destroyed and lost forever.
Glass sponge reefs are a globally unique treasure thought to have gone extinct 40 million years ago, until living glass sponge reefs were discovered in Hecate Strait, BC in 1987. Scientists who studied the ancient fossil reefs likened this discovery to finding a herd of dinosaurs wandering around on land. Glass sponge reefs provide vital habitat to a wide range of marine animals, including endangered rockfish and commercially important species like spot prawns, herring, and halibut. These reefs form oases and nurseries amidst the otherwise barren seafloor. Glass sponge reefs form over thousands of years, creating intricate and fragile structures on the seafloor. Reefs are susceptible to damage, and of greatest concern are damage due to bottom contact fisheries and sedimentation. Of the two glass sponge reefs recently discovered in the Broughton Archipelago, one appears to have been smothered by sediment and/or open net-pen fish farm waste.
Threat from Sedimentation and Smothering
Sponges, including those that form glass sponge reefs, filter the ocean and cleanse the water. They feed by pumping water through their body, filtering out bacteria and other organic material. Sand, mud, and waste suspended in the water can clog or damage the sponge’s delicate pumping system, causing “coughing” or “sneezing” fits, stopping the flow of water through their bodies which can result in death. Smothering from sedimentation can be caused by fishing gear, anchors, cables, or other marine activities adding debris and sediment to the water.
In 2017, after almost two decades of campaigning by CPAWS, the Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound Reefs were designated as a marine protected area, protecting them from damage and sedimentation. After 7 years of campaigning by CPAWS and other groups, the Strait of Georgia Glass Sponge Reef fishing closures were put in place, protecting these treasured reefs from destructive fishing activities. There are now around two dozen glass sponge reefs that have been discovered so far from Vancouver to Alaska, but the majority of them have no protection and are vulnerable to destruction by:
• Crab and prawn fishing
• Bottom-contact fishing
• Midwater trawling
• Longline fishing
• Oil and gas exploration and extraction
• Cable laying and maintenance
• Dredging and dumping