Canada Designates Trawl Closures to Protect Unique Sponge Reefs

MPA News

To protect rare colonies of glass-like, deepwater sponges, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) has banned groundfish trawling at four sites off the Pacific coast of Canada. The non-contiguous sites - about 200 meters in depth and covering nearly 1000 km2 of seabed - will remain open to other fishing-gear types as DFO officials examine the compatibility of those gear types with sponge protection.

The sponge reefs, discovered in the 1980s, are the only known reefs of their kind in the world, consisting primarily of three sponge species from the class Hexactinellida - the "glass sponges". These sponges form a fragile skeleton of silica that can be easily impacted by mobile fishing gear. Sponge reefs such as these were once widespread across the world, back in the Age of Dinosaurs. Now, the Canadian reefs serve as a "living fossil" for researchers for study.

Trawlers support and helped plan the closures. Bruce Turris, executive manager of the Groundfish Trawl Advisory Committee (representing all interests of the industry, including captains, crew, and processors), points out that groundfish trawlers adopted their own voluntary closures for the reefs back in 2000. "When we first heard about the sponge mounds being of significant scientific value, we asked the fleet to avoid fishing those areas, which they did," said Turris.

Trawling occurred on the reefs prior to 2000, and scientists in the 1990s documented significant trawl-related damage to some sponge structures. Because the areas were not particularly productive fishing grounds, voluntary closures were easy for the industry to support.

In 2002, when researchers found evidence that a vessel had recently trawled the most pristine of the reefs, trawlers joined other stakeholders in calling for the government to close the areas with regulations.

The sponge closures, which took effect on July 19, will be renewed on an annual basis in the regional groundfish management plan, according to Allan Macdonald, groundfish manager for the DFO's Pacific region. "There is no intent to reopen these closures to trawling in the foreseeable future," he said.

Sabine Jessen, conservation director for the British Columbia chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said the regulatory closures were a positive step, but is frustrated that they weren't in place earlier to prevent the recent trawl damage. "For something as rare and fragile as these reefs, the voluntary closures were never seen as adequate [by the conservation and scientific communities]," said Jessen. She called for permanent, rather than yearly, protection for the sponges. "The best way to give the reefs the permanent protection that the scientists are calling for is to establish Marine Protected Areas under [Canada's] Oceans Act."

To learn more about the sponge reefs and view photos and video taken by researchers, go to http://www.pgc.nrcan.gc.ca/marine/9901prog.htm, or http://www.porifera.org/a/cif1.htm

For more information:
Allan Macdonald, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Groundfish Management Unit, Room 460, 555 West Hastings Street, Vancouver, BC V6B 5G3, Canada. Tel: +1 604 666 9033; E-mail: MacdonaldAl [at] pac.dfo-mpo.gc.ca.

Bruce Turris, Canadian Groundfish Research and Conservation Society, 333 Third Street, New Westminster, BC V3L 2R8, Canada. Tel: +1 604 524 0005; E-mail: bruce_turris [at] telus.net.

Sabine Jessen, CPAWS-BC, 610 - 555 West Georgia Street, Vancouver, BC V6B 1Z6, Canada. Tel: +1 604 685 7445; E-mail: sjessen [at] cpawsbc.org.

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