British Columbia

Fisheries minister to announce protection for ancient glass sponge reefs

Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc is expected to announce today a long-awaited Marine Protected Area for Canada's rare glass sponge reefs, found on the B.C. coast.

9,000 year old reefs expected to be protected by new Marine Protected Area on B.C. Coast

These finger goblet sponges are some of the rare glass sponges in Hecate Strait. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Federal Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc is expected to announce today a long-awaited Marine Protected Area for Canada's rare glass sponge reefs, found on the B.C. coast.

The kind of glass sponge found in B.C. was thought to have died off 40 million years ago, before the discovery of fragile living reefs in Hecate Strait, near Haida Gwaii, in 1987.

"The sponge reefs are amongst the most ecologically sensitive and significant parts of the coastline," said LeBlanc on Wednesday.

"We will protect them, and we will protect them in a robust way."

A Marine Protected Area is a zone in the ocean designated by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans with tighter regulations, meant to conserve and protect something endangered, unique or ecologically important.

It's a move years in the making, celebrated by environmental groups that have championed the glass sponges for protection.

But even before the official details of the protected area are made public, commercial fishers are "deeply concerned" the new regulations will cost jobs.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, LeBlanc said his government planned to protect the glass sponges and there wouldn't be significant job losses as a result. (CBC)

'Incredibly magical'

Sponges may look like plants, or even geological formations, but they're actually animals — among the oldest branches of animal life on Earth.

Glass sponges build skeletons out of silica, or glass, and some — including the species on B.C.'s coast — are great reef-builders.

Over some 9,000 years, the Hecate Strait reefs have grown to cover an estimated 1,000 square kilometres of sea floor, with some as tall as an eight-storey tower, said Sabine Jessen, oceans director with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society.

"They're extremely delicate and fragile, and yet here they are growing in these immense structures on the sea floor," said Jessen.

Jessen has visited the smaller reefs in the Strait of Georgia in a submarine, and calls the experience "incredibly magical," seeing the otherworldly white structures teeming with fish, prawns and other sea life.

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

Fishermen 'deeply concerned'

It's already illegal to drag fishing gear over Hecate Strait's delicate glass sponge reefs, and has been for more than a decade — a ban that initially started voluntarily by commercial fishers.

A presentation to the sponge reef working group in November shows proposed restrictions around the glass sponge reefs, shown in light blue, and in the mid-water area above the reefs, shown in dark blue. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

The Marine Protected Area is expected to bring further restrictions to the area near the reefs, and the water column above them.

While those details haven't been announced, a draft version presented to a working group in November show an "adaptive management" or buffer zone around the sponges that will be closed to all bottom-contact fisheries — including halibut, groundfish trawling, and prawn and crab traps.

That covers nearly all the commercial fishing in the area, said the Canadian Independent Fish Harvester's Federation, which represents 8,000 fishermen across Canada.

"Fishermen are deeply concerned about this approach," said Jim McIsaac, vice president of the group's Pacific region. 

"If this is their new approach, we're in big trouble."

McIsaac said 50 to 60 vessels fish in the affected area.

"That's a big impact. It might seem small to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, but for fishermen, that's jobs."

Jim McIsaac of the Canadian Independent Fish Harvesters' Federation said the new Marine Protected Area will hurt the livelihoods of those who fish for prawn, crab, halibut and groundfish in the area. (CBC)

'Difficult decisions' says minister

Earlier draft regulations for the Marine Protect Area didn't have such tight rules, but after a public comment period yielded more than 1,300 submissions, the government decided on stronger restrictions.

The buffer zone is something the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and others were pushing for, both to avoid stirred-up sediment from harming the living sponges, and to reduce the chance of accidental contact between fishing gear and the reefs.

Speaking Wednesday to the fishermen's concerns, LeBlanc said it's possible to protect the reefs and keep fishing "sustainably and responsibly."

"It's not an either/or proposition, and people should be careful before they pull the fire alarm," said LeBlanc, who said there would not be significant job losses. But he did not promise there would be no impact.

"I think Canadians understand that as we get to these difficult decisions there will have to be some adjustments."

The other worldly glass sponge reefs were thought to have died out millions of years ago until their discovery in B.C.'s Hecate Strait in 1987. (Vancouver Aquarium)


Lisa Johnson

Senior writer and editor

Lisa Johnson is a senior writer and editor at CBC News. She helped create CBC Radio's What On Earth which won the 2021CJF Award for Climate Solutions Reporting. She has reported for CBC on TV, radio and online for more than 15 years with a specialty in science, nature, and the environment. Get in touch at or through Twitter at @lisasj.