British Columbia

Ancient glass sponge reef discovered off B.C. coast

Crews conducting an assessment of a proposed underwater LNG gas pipeline route off B.C.'s north coast have discovered a previously unknown glass sponge reef that's among the largest in the world.

Rare ecological find by industrial LNG project

The reef in Chatham Sound was so recently discovered, there are still no photos of it. These finger goblet sponges in nearby Hecate Strait are just one of the rare glass sponge species discovered earlier. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

A rare new glass sponge reef as old as the dinosaurs has been discovered near Prince Rupert, off B.C.'s northwest coast, CBC News has learned.

The reef in Chatham Sound is twelve kilometres long, making it one of the largest in the world, second only to the prehistoric reefs in nearby Hecate Strait. 

Rare ecological find - by LNG company

The rare ecological find was made by Spectra Energy, during an environmental assessment for an underwater LNG pipeline route.

Crews with the Westcoast Connector Gas Transmission Project were conducting deep sea geophysical surveys when they spotted "ghost like images" rising 30 metres from the seabed.

"The discovery of a large glass sponge reef is a really significant discovery,"  Sabine Jessen, National Director of the Oceans Program with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, told Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk.

The rare reefs, found only in the Pacific Northwest, are composed of both living sponges and fossilized skeletons, made of fragile silica or glass. 

The other-worldly glass sponge reefs were thought to have died out with the dinosaurs until their discovery in B.C.'s Hecate Strait in 1987. (Vancouver Aquarium)

'As fragile as prawn crackers'

"Anything that touches them can break them," said Jessen, noting the reefs are as fragile as prawn crackers or meringue.

Although in some places the reefs have grown to the height of an eight story building, Jessen says they're easily damaged by fish nets, bottom trawling, and any industrial activity that stirs up sediment and blocks the sponge filters.

"Our concern would be if there's any proposal to build a pipeline near the reefs," she said.

But according to documents filed for Spectra's proposed LNG project, the newly discovered reef is in not in danger.

Pipeline route to avoid reef

A technical data report submitted by Westcoast Connector Gas Transmission acknowledges the reef's importance as "rare and sensitive deeper seabed habitat."

The LNG project's environmental filings state,  "The proposed pipeline route avoids these sponge reef areas....No interactions during pipeline operation are anticipated."

The unique glass sponge reefs like the newly discovered one in Chatham Sound, help filter water, extract bacteria, and support sea life, including prawns and rock fish. (Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society)

'Like discovering dinosaurs on land'

Scientists once believed the rare reefs had died off 40 million years ago. One researcher called the discovery of the first reefs off the B.C. coast in 1987 " like discovering a herd of dinosaurs on land." 

The globally significant reefs also play an important biological role by filtering water, extracting bacteria, and supporting sea life, including prawns and rockfish.

The only glass sponge reefs in the world are in Alaska and in B.C.'s Hecate Strait, Georgia Strait, Howe Sound and now in Chatham Sound.

With files from Daybreak North