British Columbia

'Vital' glass sponge reefs off B.C. coast get federal protection

The federal government has taken steps to protect Canada's rare glass sponge reefs off the B.C. coast — a move that will restrict commercial fishing in the area.

But B.C. fishing industry says protecting reefs could cost jobs

Although glass sponges look like plants, they are actually animals and are the world’s oldest multi-cell organisms. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

The federal government has taken steps to protect Canada's rare glass sponge reefs off the B.C. coast — a move that will restrict commercial fishing in the area.

Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced Thursday the establishment of a 2,410-square-kilometre marine conservation area, comprising three sites between Vancouver Island and the archipelago of Haida Gwaii.

Fishing will be restricted in these protected area, effectively closing about 900 square kilometres, LeBlanc said. 

LeBlanc said the move was needed to protect the reefs, which he described as extremely fragile, rare and vital to the marine environment.

"What many Canadian may not know is that deep in the waters of the Hecate Straight in Queen Charlotte Sound live ancient massive reefs made of glass sponges once thought to be made extinct," LeBlanc told reporters in Vancouver.

"These reefs are estimated to be as old as 9,000 years."

LeBlanc said the glass sponges filter water and "serve as a refuge and vital habitat for a wide range of aquatic species including rock fish, Pacific salmon and shellfish."

Impact on fishing industry

Environmental groups are applauding the move, but the country's largest commercial fishing association is angry, warning fishing restrictions may cost jobs and drive up prices.

Jim McIsaac, the Pacific vice-president of the Canadian Independent Fish Harvesters' Federation, said there are 50 to 60 vessels fishing the affected area.

McIsaac said his group has been involved in consultations on the issue for seven years and had proposed a plan to protect about 1,000 square kilometres of seabed but still permit fishing in the surrounding  areas and in the water above the glass-sponge reefs.

The fishing restriction shocked the association, he said, adding the move will have a negative "cascading" effect.

Fishermen who can no longer fish in the conservation areas will "now have to go fish where other fishermen are fishing, so that will end up reducing the amount of time that those fisheries are open because you have less time to fish," he said.

With files from the Canadian Press

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