The glass sponge reef in Chatham Sound is thought to be one of the oldest in the world. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada)

Protecting rare, ancient glass sponge reefs

Dr. Stephanie Archer on glass sponge reefs on the North Coast for the marine speakers series

Lying on the seafloor, not far from the shores of Prince Rupert, are ancient and rare glass sponge reefs that, until recently, were believed to have gone extinct 40 million years ago. At the Northwest Community College on Nov. 15, Dr. Stephanie Archer presented her research about the reefs.

“We still don’t know that they exist anywhere else in the world. So it’s an ecosystem that is almost purely Canadian, which is pretty cool,” Dr. Stephanie Archer said ahead of her talk.

Until the reef in Hecate Strait was discovered in 1987, scientists believed glass sponge reefs were extinct. (Fisheries and Oceans Canada, University of Alberta and Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility)

The discovery of the glass sponge reefs in Chatham Sound went unnoticed for three years, until the data was uncovered in early 2016. The Hecate Strait reefs are estimated to be 9,000 years old, but were only discovered in 1987. Age is often determined by size and thickness, since reefs grow when the juvenile sponges settle on the skeletons of the previous generation. The Chatham Sound reef is believed to be even older than those in Hecate Strait, because it is 10 metres taller, measured at 30 metres.

“Which means they might be the oldest reefs we know about,” Archer said.

This past year, the federal government place a moratorium on the area that covers both reefs.

READ MORE: FISHING CLOSURES FOR GLASS SPONGE REEFS ON THE NORTH COAST

“You might guess from their name, glass sponge reefs are incredibly fragile because the skeletons that built them are literally made of glass,” Archer said.

“When things like trawls or traps hit them, they will just shatter. That’s not only bad for the living sponges themselves, but it’s bad for the continuation of the whole ecosystem.”

Aside from their rarity, the glass sponge reefs help counteract global climate change, because they feed on small bacteria and trap carbon and nitrogen, preventing them from escaping into the atmosphere. Dr. Archer said this can also reduce ocean acidification.

The ecosystem the reefs create supports other life too. Large numbers of halibut, rockfish and prawns have been documented on them, and researchers believe the glass sponges act as a nursing ground for rockfish.

Dr. Stephanie Archer presented her glass sponge reef research at Northwest Community College in Prince Rupert on Nov. 15 (Submitted)

“99.9 per cent of the sponge reefs that we know about in the world occur in Canada. It’s truly a Canadian issue to take care of this ecosystem,” Archer said.

“I think sponges are some of the coolest animals on the planet. I hope [people who attend the talk] get a sense of wonder and amazement about sponges and what they can do … and what we can do to protect them.”

Some tips Archer recommends include being aware if bits of sponge are coming up in your traps, and avoiding those areas when fishing in the future. The public can get involved in Fisheries and Oceans, and attend public engagement sessions with conservation initiatives, such as when the marine protected area plan for northern B.C. comes out in early 2018.

It all comes down to “trying to make smart choices about where you fish,” she said. “Getting involved and being vocal about wanting to see the areas that we do know have these reefs protected.”

READ MORE: REEF DISCOVERY GOES UNNOTICED



keili.bartlett@thenorthernview.com

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