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The Sound of health

Howe Sound is improving, but still vulnerable

Squamish’s John Buchanan recalls fishing at Porteau Cove as a young boy. He would sit and fish from his little wooden boat that was attached to the shore by a rope. His mother allowed him to fish as far out into Howe Sound as the rope would let him. 

His first memory of pollution in the sound was when he proudly brought his mom a flounder he had caught. 

“We can’t keep that one,’’ Buchanan, who is now 53, recalls his mom saying, “because it has got this tumour growing on it… That is from the chemicals in the water.’” 

Buchanan, who grew up in downtown Squamish, also recalls his mom being very upset one day because all of the tomatoes in her garden died suddenly. 

“The wind went in the wrong direction from the chemical plant, so my tomatoes are dead,’” she told him, referring to the chlorine plant formerly located on Squamish’s oceanfront. At the time, Buchanan said, he didn’t think much about these incidents, but they stuck with him. 

Squamish and Howe Sound has rebounded since those toxic days of Buchanan’s memories. 

Whales, dolphins and porpoises, unseen in the sound for 100 years, have again been spotted to the delight of onlookers on shore and at sea.

That is just one of the facts included in a new comprehensive report on the sound, Ocean Watch: Howe Sound Edition, released by the Vancouver Aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute. 

In a nutshell, the remarkably readable report outlines gains made in improving the health of Howe Sound from its worst days as a dumping ground for industries, but it also asserts there’s an incredibly long way to go before the sound is anywhere near its optimal health.  

“We are pretty happy about the rebound,” said Buchanan whose work documenting herring and salmon is referenced dozens of times in the report. 

“[But] it is strictly an area that has just begun its repair work.” 

Dungeness crab caught in Howe Sound still show dangerously high levels of toxins used to create pulp and paper more than a decade after the Woodfibre pulp and paper mill shut down, for example, the report notes.

 Scientists are worried about many species who make Howe Sound their home, including sea stars that have fallen victim to a mysterious wasting disease and are listed as critical on the Ocean Health Index. Lingcod, rockfish and eelgrass are also rated critical. 

And despite its proximity to several universities and an urban population, much of Howe Sound has not been scientifically studied, the report asserts.

There is not enough data to rate plankton or forage fish, for example, and data is limited on ocean warming impacts and stream flows in the sound.

“It has been a progressive decline really in any attempts to understand or monitor,” said the report’s producer, Andrew Day, executive director of the Coastal Ocean Research Institute. Day added that while governments have played a role in the lack of data collected, scientists could do better in this regard as well. Advancing technologies should allow for expanded and easier study, he said. 

For example, with environmental DNA, “pull a bucket of water out and analyze it for fish scales or plankton or other remnants of life and then use that to tell you what was there and how much was there,” he said.

Day said the process of creating the report inspired him as to the abundance to aim for in Howe Sound.  

“Like the fact there were millions of eulachon in the Squamish River; that there were sturgeon on the east side of Howe Sound, that 80 or so humpback whales were in the area, all of those things spoke to me about the incredible richness that this area was,” he said. “It seems very rich now, but it is just a fraction of what it was.” 

The report outlines a 1930s catch of the day in the Strait of Georgia that netted 2,500 pounds of sole, 1,800 crabs, 800 pounds of flounder, 150 pounds of lingcod, 40 pounds of red squid and three octopi. 

The report outlines action plans that individuals, organizations and governments can use to help the sound move toward its ideal. 

Day said his optimism about the future of the sound comes from the many groups already working tirelessly on ways to improve the local marine environment. 

“There’s a real good, genuine desire to do the right thing and to want to see nature come back,” he said. 

Edith Tobe, Squamish biologist and executive director of the Squamish River Watershed Society, was the main author on the section of the report about the Squamish Estuary. 

She is also an example of one of the people doing good work on the ground to improve nature that Day referred to.

“The Estuary provides a vital role: mitigating against sea level rise, withstanding floods and storm events, cleaning and purifying our water, and providing important habitat for wildlife,” Tobe told The Chief.

Tobe said, in addition to the action items in the report, she would like to see further actions added including keeping garbage and evasive species out of the estuary. 

“Do not ever dump garden waste into the estuary as it may contain invasive plants,” she said. 

“Stop further development or degradation of the estuary.” 

Fifty per cent of the estuary to date has been lost to development, she added. Only  “a portion” of what remains is protected within the provincial Ministry of Environment’s Wildlife Management Area designation.

In the sound overall, less than one per cent of its fragile ecosystems are protected, according to the report. At the same time development, traffic and visitors are increasing in and around Howe Sound. 

The Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative is an independent group that is working to have Howe Sound designated a Biosphere Reserve, which would become part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Network of Biosphere Reserves. 

The District of Squamish passed a motion last week in support of nominating Howe Sound to become a biosphere reserve. 

The benefits of biosphere regions are that they can attract different levels of funding that can then support either existing groups that are working on initiatives to improve the sound or to new activities, said Ruth Simons, who spoke on behalf of the initiative at a recent Squamish committee of the whole meeting.  

“A biosphere region can become a leading example of how sustainable development can be done in an area,” said Simons, who is executive director of the Future of Howe Sound Society and one of the authors of a section of the report on stewardship and governance. The designation can also create new opportunities for First Nations and local economies because biosphere reserves attract visitors seeking to travel to places that are respectful of the environment, added Simons.  

“One of the great advantages of this is it connects us to a network of other biospheres internationally who we can learn from and there is a level of accountability.” 

For the last few years, the provincial government has been working on a cumulative effects assessment that includes Howe Sound, but the Ocean Watch report suggests that it could be more thorough, by including more marine values, for example. 

The Squamish Nation is also currently working on its own marine strategy for Howe Sound.

“The revitalization of Howe Sound has become an important symbol to the people of the Squamish Nation, who have lived and fished in these waters for thousands of years,” said hereditary Chief Ian Campbell. “The Nation is now working on another important piece of the revitalization program: its own comprehensive marine use plan… Nothing this important happens overnight. We have much more to do. And we have to work together.”

Mayor Patricia Heintzman said although we aren’t at this point yet, she personally envisions a time when certain development is capped around the sound. 

“We have never thought of these things in a cumulative kind of way,” she said. “Once we get that lens on it, in my mind, at some point we have hit the threshold. ‘You can’t do the next project,’ is just off the table,” she said. “There is a line you can’t cross.” 

For the full Howe Sound report go to