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Hecate Strait / Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reef Area of Interest Overview and Context

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Hecate Strait / Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reef Area of Interest Overview and Context [PDF]

Background | Proposal | Links | MPA Designation Process


In 1988, the Geological Survey of Canada discovered four major reef complexes of Hexactinellid (glass) sponge reefs in Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound. These enormous concentrations of glass sponges cover an area of about 1,000 square kilometres and are an estimated 9,000 years old. Up to 25 metres in height, the reefs are found within glacier-ploughed troughs at depths between 140 and 240 metres. The reefs serve as a modern link to reefs that were common during the Jurassic era. Today, while individual and small concentrations of glass sponges are regularly found in the deep ocean, and occasionally form large communities, the necessary ocean conditions for large reef development are exceptionally rare. Reefs the size of the ones found in Hecate Strait/Queen Charlotte Sound have not been found elsewhere in the world, contributing to their global importance for protection.

The Health of the Oceans (HOTO) initiative, announced in 2007, seeks to address some of Canada’s international commitments from the 2004 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity Program of Work on Protected Areas. One key HOTO obligation is the designation of six Marine Protected Areas (MPAs); one in each Large Ocean Management Area (LOMA), by March 31, 2012. The Pacific Region’s Area of Interest (AOI) for potential MPA designation is the glass sponge reefs of Hecate Strait / Queen Charlotte Sound. Despite the longevity of the reefs, the sponges themselves are extremely fragile and readily damaged by even minor physical impacts. This, coupled with slow growth rates, long life spans and the need for very specific habitat conditions, make them highly vulnerable to impacts from human activities.

Commercial groundfish bottom trawl fishing was the key economic activity on or near the sponge reefs prior to a voluntary bottom trawl closure in 2000. A fishery closure was implemented in 2002. Subsequently, the bottom trawl closure was increased in size to reflect new data indicating the edges of the reefs were still vulnerable, and a corresponding closure was introduced into the shrimp trawl fishery. The prawn by trap fishery 2009 Integrated Fisheries Management Plan included a description of the sponge reefs with a recommendation to avoid them.

Secondary key activities in the area include some hook and line fishing and trap fishing, and marine transportation. Additionally, the AOI is situated within Shell Canada / Chevron tenures. ENGO initiatives have increased public awareness of the reefs, and resulted in increased pressure for their protection.


A proposal to recommend the Hecate Strait / Queen Charlotte Sound glass sponge reefs as Pacific Region’s Area of Interest was circulated to First Nations marine planning groups, the BC Association of First Nations Fishery Council, Federal and Provincial government departments/agencies and stakeholders from January to March 2009. Most sectors expressed the need for further consultation prior to a final decision being made. Response to the draft proposal included concerns regarding inadequate time for comment, lack of clarity with respect to the linkages to other initiatives in the area such as PNCIMA, and details of the post – announcement process. These concerns will be addressed as part of the next 6 months consultation, including the development of documents that help to identify the ecological, social, cultural and economic values of the sponge reef areas, the benefits of potential MPA designation, and the potential implications. These documents will be revised and improved through feedback obtained during the consultation phase.

Consultation for potential designation will:

  1. improve understanding of the designation process and clarify the roles and opportunities to participate for all sectors;
  2. contribute to the evaluation and analysis of implications of MPA designation
  3. inform development of the regulatory package, including boundaries, conservation objectives, activities and management measures.

Development of the ecological and socioeconomic overview and assessment, cost benefit analysis, and regulatory impact analysis statement documents will include public input to determine the level of impact of MPA designation.


The Glass Sponge Reef AOI will be one of several management tools and processes proposed for the Pacific region that share similarities, including PNCIMA stakeholder engagement, Gwaii Haanas National Marine Conservation Area Reserve, Scott Islands proposed Marine Wildlife Area, and provincial coastal protected area planning.

The AOI will be considered in conjunction with other federal and provincial protected areas in Pacific Canada’s waters, guided by two strategic plans currently being developed. The draft National Framework for Canada’s Network of Marine Protected Areas provides the National context and common goals for a national system of MPA networks, as part of Canada’s global commitment to establish networks of Marine Protected Areas made at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, and in the 2004 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. Four bioregions have been identified for the Pacific region, and a MPA network is envisaged for each bioregion. Each network will be designed to suit its bioregion’s unique geography, available management tools, and set of ecological and socio-economic objectives. It is proposed that MPA network development occur though existing integrated management processes, such as PNCIMA.

MPA designation of the AOI would contribute to a MPA network for the PNCIMA bioregion. Designation of the sponge reefs as a MPA would also demonstrate application of DFO’s Coldwater Coral and Sponge Conservation Strategy, Sustainable Fisheries Framework and Managing Impacts of Fishing on Benthic Habitat, Communities and Species Policy.

MPA Designation Process

There are 5 main steps in MPA establishment, as depicted below (Figure 1). The Pacific Region is currently working on step 2 and 3.

  1. Selection of the AOI: The approach begins with identifying marine areas of high biodiversity or biological productivity, unique habitats, areas with threatened or endangered marine species, and areas of important fishery resources (commercial and non-commercial), including marine mammals, and their habitats. To some extent, socioeconomic and feasibility considerations are also taken into account at this stage.
  2. Conduct an overview and assessment of the AOI: The characterization and assessment of the AOI informs decisions leading to the establishment of an MPA. The overview and assessment report incorporates scientific, traditional and local knowledge and information, and provides a focused description and analysis of both the biophysical and human components of the AOI.
  3. Develop regulatory intent. The regulatory intent relates directly to the reason for establishing the MPA. It includes the development of MPA objectives, and the description of regulatory measures and management approach that will be employed to achieve the MPA’s conservation objectives. The proposed regulatory approach is developed in consultation with the MPA advisory committee and other stakeholders. Public consultation on the regulatory intent can begin following Ministerial approval of the selection of the AOI. The Minister also approves the regulatory intent. Pacific Region intends to complete the regulatory intent package and submit to National Headquarters (NHQ) by March 31, 2011.
  4. Develop regulatory documents and designate the MPA. MPAs are designated by regulation through the regulatory powers of the Governor in Council under Section 35(3) of the Oceans Act. The federal regulatory process for an MPA takes approximately 1 year. The regulatory intent and other background regulatory documents must be completed and approved before the formal regulatory process begins. DFO has committed to completing designation by March 31, 2012.
  5. Develop and implement MPA management plan. Should the sponge reef AOI be designated a MPA, the MPA management plan will be developed after designation.

diagram: mpa designation process

Figure 1. MPA designation process. The Pacific Region is currently progressing on step 2 and 3. Red line indicates the elements that will be developed in consultation with First Nations, the Province of British Columbia, other government departments, stakeholders and interested parties.