Photo: Howe Sound: A fragile recovery

(Credit: Jeff Gunn via Flickr)

By: Scott Wallace, Senior Research Scientist

Squamish Streamkeepers Society is a small group of volunteers who made a big difference in the marine recovery of Howe Sound. They noticed that creosote-covered wood pilings at Squamish Terminal were killing herring roe and they did something about it. When herring eggs are directly exposed to creosote, 90 per cent of them die. The polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the coal tar product penetrate the fish embryos, halting egg development after a few days. The volunteers wrapped a plastic material used for weed control around 200 pilings with amazing results: the return of schools of healthy herring after decades of absence, followed by a myriad of marine mammals in search of meals.

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Pacific white-sided dolphins—hundreds recently seen playing offshore—were new arrivals to the sound by 2010 as they came for the growing schools of herring. Orcas followed the dolphins, with as many as 30 spotted in the waters this year.

By 2010, the first grey whale in over 100 years made its way into the sound to much fanfare. While grey whales were a common sight until 1880, they had almost disappeared from these waters by 1900 because of over-hunting. Last October, a humpback whale was filmed breaching near Gambier Island. Humpbacks had also fallen to hunting by the early 20th century and have only returned in the past 15 years.

Crabs and prawns reappeared and last year commercial salmon fisheries opened for the first time in 50 years. Pink salmon became a common sight at the mouth of the Squamish River estuary and can already be seen this year in Britannia and Furry creeks.

The clean-up of industrial activities created a healthier Howe Sound ecosystem. Eelgrass beds and other vegetation started to appear as cleaner water flowed in the channel.

While Howe Sound is showing signs of recovery, the marine environment is also contending with increasingly extreme weather-related phenomena caused by climate change, such as ocean acidification. We're witnessing detrimental effects on shellfish and organisms such as plankton, which is at the very foundation of the food chain.

The streamkeeper volunteers plan to wrap 300 more pilings this summer and add float lines to encourage even more herring eggs. Now is the time to build on these clean-up efforts and the momentum of this revival and nurture the fragile recovery of this magnificent marine region. We still have a long way to go before we can declare this recovery complete.

March 28, 2014

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