The Canadian government has increased protection for fragile 9,000 year-old glass sponge reefs to prevent their destruction by fishing trawlers thanks to the efforts of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society
The ancient reefs, which were discovered off the country's Northwest coast only 30 years ago, are the only large-form, living examples of their type in the world. The reefs reach the height of an 8-storey building in parts and cover 1,000 km2 of ocean floor.
Fossilized remains of the whole reef system today form giant cliffs that stretch across much of the European mainland from Russia, through Germany, France and all the way to Portugal.
"200 million years ago, there were giant glass sponge reefs that stretched across the prehistoric Tethys Sea, in what is now Europe," said Dr. Manfred Krautter, palaeontologist and glass sponge expert from the University of Stuttgart.
The fossilized remains of these reefs form giant cliffs that stretch across the Caucasian Mountains in Russia, Poland, the Franconian and Swabian Alps in Germany, northern Switzerland, eastern France, eastern Spain, to the Algarve in southern Portugal.
"The reefs disappeared about 40 million years ago. We thought they were extinct, so finding living glass sponge reefs was like finding a herd of dinosaurs on Vancouver Island, it was a big surprise!" adds Krautter, who collaborated with Canadian scientists to undertake the first full survey of the reefs almost two decades ago thanks to the support of the German Research Foundation.
The reefs were discovered in 1987 by a team of Canadian scientists surveying the seafloor in Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound, off the North coast of British Columbia.
The new designation bans destructive fishing activity near the reef structures following pressure from the Canadian public and marine scientists around the world. Scientists estimate that about 50 per cent of the glass sponge reefs have already been destroyed by bottom trawlers and other heavy fishing gear.
Since that discovery, a handful of smaller reefs have been found elsewhere in BC and Alaska. However, BC's Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound reefs are the only large, living glass sponge reefs in the global ocean.
The living glass sponge reefs are over 9,000 years old, reach the height of an eight-storey building, and cover 1,000 km2 of ocean floor. Like coral reefs, the glass sponge reefs provide important habitat for many ecologically and commercially important species, like spot prawns, rockfish, and sharks.
"We are overjoyed to see these reefs finally get the protection they need as Canada's newest Marine Protected Area," said Sabine Jessen, CPAWS' National Ocean Program Director.
"The reefs are an international treasure, they are globally unique, incredibly important, and deserving of strong protection so that they can remain a source of awe and wonder for generations to come," adds Jessen.
"Glass sponges are as fragile as they sound. They have the consistency of a baked meringue or prawn chip, and are very easily damaged," said Jessen. Heavy fishing gear like bottom trawlers and prawn traps can crush the delicate reefs, while the sediment plumes kicked up as equipment is dragged along the sea floor can smother and choke the sponges.
"Tragically, we think about 50 per cent of the glass sponge reefs have already been destroyed by bottom trawlers and other heavy fishing gear," adds Jessen.
Initially, the proposal for the MPA did not prohibit these harmful activities from happening right next to the reefs, putting the reefs at risk from further damage. After receiving thousands of letters from Canadians, as well as a letter from more than 40 international marine scientists, all demanding better protection of the reefs, the government enhanced protection measures. The MPA will now prohibit all bottom contact fishing activities from occurring within 200 metres of the reefs, until it can be proven they are not harmful, and will implement more stringent measures for the midwater trawl fisheries.
"We firmly believe that there will be significant long-term benefits of strongly protecting the reefs," said Jessen. "As an important nursery habitat for many commercially important species, many fisheries depend on the reefs, so
protecting them will ensure the long-term sustainability of these fisheries," Jessen added.
In parallel, the SponGES project, a consortium of researchers from European Union, Canada and the US received funding from the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation for a 5 years programme under grant (10 millions €) to study sponge biology, ecology, genetics, physiology and bio-activity.