Glass sponge reefs: A Canadian wonder.

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The fossil record came alive for marine scientists in 1987, when a unique and vibrant species known as glass sponge coral was discovered living just off the Pacific Coast of North America. These 9,000 year old glass sponges are composed almost entirely of glass (silica) and exist individually in deep seawater or scaffold together to build large reef communities deep on the ocean floor. Located beyond scuba depths, these reefs remain unreachable to many scientists and can only be studied up close using undersea technology.

The rare glass sponge species have only been discovered in four areas of the ocean: Antarctica, Southern New Zealand, caves in the Mediterranean and the off the western Canadian continental shelf. Unique to the rest, the glass sponge colonies residing within Canadian borders are the only sizable reef building colonies. These colonies are located in the Hecate Strait and the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia and make up seven full size reefs. 

Glass sponge reefs provide structure to the otherwise barren sea floor, and provides habitats for fish and other small invertebrates. The globally unique features of the glass sponge reefs attract species of crabs, shrimps, prawns and rockfish (full grown and juveniles). 

Due to the delicate structure, glass sponge communities are affected greatly by physical disturbances and threats.  Scientists have also noted that damaged or dead sponge reefs have much less activity of local life. Trawling shatters all glass sponges in its path causing massive areas of reef mortality. Indirect physical disturbances also pose an unknown risk, leading marine biologists to suspect that excess man-made sedimentation would have detrimental effects. 

Fisheries and Oceans Canada have designated the Hecate Strait as a no trawling zone, and in 2010 stated that it is an ‘area of interest’ for a future Marine Protected Area. Canadian Parks & Wildlife Society - British Columbia Chapter (CPAWS-BC) and other conservation authorities are pushing for smaller reefs within the Strait of Georgia to get the same consideration. 

On October 15th and 16th, CPAWS-BC and Nuytco will join in partnership to give a select group of influential Canadians along with a few lucky Canadians the opportunity to see the unique beauty these reefs possess. Six submarine trips will embark on a 90 minute expedition along the Strait of Georgia in the Aquarius Submarine. Footage will also be recorded to document the health, condition and urgency for protection of these reefs.

Although the significance and contribution of the sponge reefs are unknown it is clear that without intervention and solid protection strategies the opportunity for study will be eliminated.  This is our chance as Canadians to protect one of our sacred homeland ecosystems. Let’s help CPAWS protect the reefs while they are still there to protect.

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You can win a spot on a submarine dive to the glass sponge reefs! Open to all Canadian residents over 19 years of age. Click here to enter. Closes September 19.