By Michelle Molnar, Environmental Economist
Humpback, killer and grey whales, pods of Pacific white-sided dolphins, salmon spawning, crabs, prawns and herring: Howe Sound — the spectacular network of fjords hugged by West Vancouver's Lighthouse Park, Squamish and Gibsons — is experiencing a remarkable ecological rebirth area residents are working to continue.
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It wasn't always like this. Decades ago, the combination of pulp mill pollution, acid draining from the abandoned Britannia Beach copper mine, untreated sewage and chlorine spills forced out many of the Sound's marine inhabitants, creating a marine dead zone. Even algae were hard to find.
Sulphate drained into the water from pulp mills at Port Mellon and Woodfibre, shutting down the crab fishery by the 1980s. The prawn fishery closed and salmon stopped coming into the smaller streams. Herring mysteriously disappeared and the seven species of rockfish dropped to two per cent of their historic population.
Hope came back when the Woodfibre pulp mill closed and the Port Mellon mill was retrofitted with modern cleaning technology in the late 1980s. A water treatment plant was built at the former Britannia Beach mine site to filter out heavy metals saturated with sulphide. Clean water could finally be pumped into the nearby creek and flow on to the ocean. The marine dead zone shrunk in size.
Crabs and prawns returned and with them fisheries re-opened. Herring came back and with them killer whales. The commercial salmon fishery opened last year for the first time in 50 years. The return of this missing wildlife signaled ecosystem recovery.
But this miraculous revival story isn't yet fully written. Howe Sound residents are speaking out about how over $2 billion in development projects on the horizon—from proposed gravel mines, waste garbage incinerators and pulp mills, to liquid natural gas (LNG) facilities—could put the brakes on the region's marine revival. The projects are at various stages of consideration, but industrial resurgence and nature recovery must be considered together — not in the current piecemeal approach that could set them on a collision course.
The region's MLA, Jordan Sturdy, has acknowledged the challenge ahead and spoken of the possibility of a cumulative effects assessment to better understand changes to environmental, social and economic factors caused by the combined effects of present, past and future developments—a good step toward a longer-term, comprehensive land and marine plan for this threatened natural paradise.
Howe Sound has unparalleled beauty and provides for an incredible diversity of land and marine wildlife species, such as the easiest to access glass sponge reefs outside of the Antarctic. It also filters air, cleans water and captures carbon for the Lower Mainland's two million residents.
If our region were a body, Howe Sound would be the lungs. We think that's something worth fighting for.
Learn more at the Protect Howe Sound website.