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Researcher explores McNab Creek

Diver finds diverse marine life near site of proposed aggregate mine

After a recent exploration into McNab Creek, Vancouver Aquarium researcher Jeff Marliave provided a first-hand account of the flourishing marine life and sensitive ecosystem that occupies the waters near the proposed Burnco aggregate mine.

The proposal was presented to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in 2009 and has been making its way through an environmental assessment.

In late May, strong opposition was documented at a public hearing in Horseshoe Bay, where Howe Sound-area residents raised concerns from noise and air pollution to environmental degradation.

In a letter dated June 27, 2011 and sent to Kim Titus, vice president of Burnco's aggregate division, DFO officials raised serious concerns about the extent of the impacts to fish and fish habitat that may result from this project.

However, because the full extent of those impacts cannot be assessed based on all of the information currently available, DFO will continue its review of the project, wrote Susan Farlinger, a regional director with DFO.

The mine could employ 12 full-time workers and operate upwards of 300 days per year, removing over a million tonnes of aggregate annually.

Marliave did not wish to speculate on what the development could mean for the Howe Sound marine habitat, but provided a scientific account of what kind of marine life the area hosts and why it could be important.

The shore is host to a rich, thick, deep seaweed, that divers noted as a thriving nursery for a variety of marine life, including prawns, herring and scallops.

The other thing we saw right above this pinnacle [a lofty peak] were huge numbers of schooling larval herring, he said. They're translucent, when divers see larval herring schooling, it means it's really high abundance. There's been a lot of talk about the rebounding of herring in Howe Sound.

A recent article in The Chief (Local herring not migrating, Aug. 16) noted the return of adult herring to Howe Sound. The fish were previously thought to migrate out of the sound upon reaching maturity.

The discovery is thought to be a possible clue in the mystery of why creatures like white-sided dolphins have become a more common sight in the area.

The McNab shore is also host to kelp beds, which provide nursery habitats for spot prawns and other creatures, a type of ecosystem Marliave described as critical.

Log booms from days past may have choked out other kelp beds by covering the sea floor in shade. Along Gambier Island, the diver noted long-term habitat degradation in areas also containing forestry debris.

The physical environment in terms of seawater quality has really improved, but we only have these remnant seabed habitats that provide key aspects of nursery habitat for different key players in the ecosystem, in the community, he explained.

Marliave said that it is useful to consider West Howe Sound divided into its unique and varying parts, rather than as a homogeneous ecosystem.

Where you have these little pinnacles and off-shore reefs and rock piles, they're really important, he said, pointing to species important to both the economy and biodiversity.

A request was made to Burnco for comment but as of press time, no response had been received.

In the Dec. 16, 2011 edition of the company's project report, 21 species at risk were identified as potentially occurring on the property.

The list included orcas, the harbour porpoise, stellar sea lion and the grey whale, due to recent observations of this species in Howe Sound.

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