Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reefs Marine Protected Area

Date of Submission: 13/04/2018
Criteria: (viii)(ix)(x)
Category: Natural
Submitted by:
Parks Canada Agency
State, Province or Region:
Province of British Columbia
Ref.: 6338
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Description

In 1987, four major glass sponge reefs were discovered by the Geological Survey of Canada. These Hexactinellid (glass) sponge reefs are located between Haida Gwaii and the mainland of British Columbia in the Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound. There are four distinct sponge reefs comprising this serial site: the Northern Reef, two Central Reefs, and the Southern Reef. These sponge reef complexes are considered to be the largest living example of glass sponge reefs that were abundant in the Jurassic Period. The reefs are made up of large colonies of glass sponges and are estimated to be 9,000 years old.

The existence and formation of the reefs requires a combination of unique geological conditions combined with the occurrence of the reef-forming species of Hexactinellid sponges. The four reef complexes in the Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound discontinuously cover an area of about 1,000 km2, and are located in glacial troughs between 140 m and 240 m deep. The reef complexes are several kilometers wide, and up to 25 m tall. The sponge reefs provide refuge, habitat, and nursery grounds for aquatic species, including commercially important rockfish, other finfish and shellfish species. The species supported by the reefs are also of significant cultural importance to North and Central Coast First Nations.

In 1999, scientific surveys revealed that the reefs had been impacted by bottom contact fishing gear, primarily bottom trawl gear. These observations, plus new information on the reefs, resulted in Canada formally closing groundfish bottom trawling, with the support of the fishing industry, on the four glass sponge reefs in 2002.  In 2011, after a four year planning process, the Heiltsuk, Kitasoo/Xai’Xais, Nuxalk and Wuikinuxv Nations finalized a marine use plan asserting the Nations’ belief that commercial or industrial activities that could damage the reefs or cause sedimentation should be prohibited.  In February of 2017, the Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reefs Marine Protected Area (HS/QCS MPA) was designated under the Oceans Act.

Northern Reef;

bounded by a series of rhumb lines drawn from a point having coordinate values of 53º18'40.4" North latitude and 130º52'46.5" West longitude, to a point having coordinate values of 53º22'12.1" North latitude and  130º47'01.7" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 53º22'20.2" North latitude and  130º43'12.5" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 53º17'22.8" North latitude and  130º38'18.2" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 53º15'01.7" North latitude and  130º36'35.5" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 53º10'55.2" North latitude and  130º20'19.3" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 53º04'30.2" North latitude and  130º25'53.6" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 53º04'58.0" North latitude and  130º32'16.9" West longitude then to a point having coordinate values of 53º07'22.2" North latitude and  130º37'37.6" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 53º08'36.6" North latitude and  130º39'29.5" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 53º08'41.8" North latitude and  130º45'40.0" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 53º13'51.2" North latitude and  130º46’41.2" West longitude, then back to the point of Commencement.

Central Reef Zone A;

bounded by a series of rhumb lines drawn from a point having coordinate values of 52º14'03.4" North latitude and  129º38'33.2" West longitude, to a point having coordinate values of 52º16'54.8" North latitude and  129º43'13.4" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 52º21'57.1" North latitude and  129º43'56.5" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 52º24'24.5" North latitude and  129º47'22.8" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 52º29'05.9" North latitude and  129º50'59.4" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 52º31'05.2" North latitude and  129º50'13.9" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 52º31'06.7" North latitude and  129º47'40.9" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 52º27'42.0" North latitude and  129º40'25.1" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 52º25'22.9" North latitude and  129º37'24.0" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 52º19'47.0" North latitude and  129º32'43.2" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 52º16'18.2" North latitude and  129º33'22.8" West longitude, then back to the point of Commencement.

Central Reef Zone B;

bounded by a series of rhumb lines drawn from a point having coordinate values of 51º54'43.1" North latitude and  129º41'22.2" West longitude, to a point having coordinate values of 52º01'22.5" North latitude and  129º35'48.4" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 52º05'13.5" North latitude and  129º34'32.5" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 52º08'48.5" North latitude and  129º31'44.1" West longitude then to a point having coordinate values of 52º08'51.3" North latitude and  129º29'18.0" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 52º04'27.1" North latitude and  129º21'17.3" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 51º59'40.8" North latitude and  129º15'23.9" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 51º56'04.5" North latitude and  129º18'46.2" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 51º52'55.7" North latitude and  129º36'49.8" West longitude, then back to the point of Commencement.

Southern Reef;

bounded by a series of rhumb lines drawn from a point having coordinate values of 51º17'59.2" North latitude and 128º57'31.9" West longitude, to a point having coordinate values of 51º19'30.8" North latitude and  128º58'22.7" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 51º23'41.9" North latitude and  128º48'50.9" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 51º19'17.5" North latitude and  128º42'33.6" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 51º18'24.5" North latitude and  128º42'37.7" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 51º15'56.0" North latitude and  128º47'04.2" West longitude, then to a point having coordinate values of 51º15'52.2" North latitude and  128º54'20.4" West longitude, then back to the point of Commencement.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The four glass sponge reefs comprising the Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound Glass Sponge Reefs Marine Protected Area are an ecosystem of outstanding geological, paleontological, and biological universal value. Two hundred million years ago, glass sponge reefs spanned the Tethys Sea (now central Europe), but disappeared from the fossil record 40 million years ago. A rare combination of geological and oceanographic conditions, including the weathering of silica rich coastal mountains and deep glacial troughs in the seabed allowed the reefs to re-emerge in BC after the last glaciation. As the largest known living glass sponge reefs, Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound glass sponge reefs provide scientists with a unique window into prehistoric ecosystems, and biological and physical processes.

The size of the reefs makes them a significant physiographic feature. The reefs provide critical nursery habitat, refuge, and feeding grounds for many vulnerable and commercial species and represent an outstanding biogenic deep-sea, cold-water ecosystem. The species supported by the reefs are also of significant cultural importance to North and Central Coast First Nations.

Glass sponges were one of the first forms of complex life to evolve and so the reefs have played a significant role in the evolution and development of marine ecosystems, ancient and modern.

Criterion (viii): The presence of the reefs in British Columbia is due to a complex combination of geological and oceanographic processes. The reefs provide a unique window onto marine life in the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Their rarity and size makes them a significant physiographic feature.

Criterion (ix): As a living analogue of a prehistoric ecosystem, the reefs provide a rare insight into the biology and ecology of the Mesozoic ocean. As a biogenic habitat and filter feeder, the reefs play a formative role in the evolution and development of marine ecosystems as well as nutrient cycling.

Criterion (x): The glass sponge reefs create an oasis of life on an otherwise featureless seabed, in the depths of the Pacific. Their intricate structure provides shelter to numerous species including commercially important and endangered rockfish. The reef contains ten times more juvenile rockfish than surrounding areas.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

Glass sponge reefs are globally rare, and the Hecate Strait and Queen Charlotte Sound reefs are by far the largest known to exist. These sponges are fragile, and have skeletons made of silica (i.e., glass) and may live for over 200 years. Sponges are easily broken on impact, and can be smothered by increased sediment. The ocean conditions necessary to allow such large reefs to develop are rare, and the fragility of the reefs make them vulnerable to damage from human activity. The slow growth and vulnerability of the sponges suggests that recovery from damage may take tens to several hundreds of years. If the skeletons of dead sponges are buried (e.g., through increased levels of sedimentation beyond what naturally occurs) or destroyed (e.g., through direct impact), new sponges cannot grow to add stability to the reef.

Due to the highly sensitive nature and structure of the reefs, human activities in and around the reefs, such as commercial fishing, pose a high risk to the structural habitat, biological diversity and ecosystem function of the reefs.  Prior to their discovery in 1987, and the mandatory bottom trawling fishing closures in 2002, they sustained damage from bottom contact fishing gear, with some reefs incurring more damage than others. Fisheries closures in 2002 through the Fisheries Act and regulations designated under the Oceans Act marine protected area address direct (i.e. crushing) and indirect threats (i.e. sedimentation) to the reefs.

The conservation objective of the HS/QCS MPA, referenced by the MPA regulations (SOR/2017-15), is to conserve the biological diversity, structural habitat, and ecosystem function of the glass sponge reefs. The HS/QCS MPA is composed of three individual areas known as the Northern Reef, the Central Reefs (with two components), and the Southern Reef. Together these three areas cover approximately 2,410 km2. Each component has three management zones: a core protection zone (CPZ), an adaptive management zone (AMZ) and a vertical adaptive management zone (VAMZ). The CPZs are closed to all commercial, recreational, and Indigenous fishing, while the VAMZ and AMZ are currently closed to all commercial bottom contact fishing activities for prawn, shrimp, crab, and groundfish, as well as for midwater trawl for hake. Together, the establishment of these zones, and the associated prohibitions, provides for the conservation and protection of the biological diversity, structural habitat and ecosystem function of the glass sponge reefs through the management of human activities.

Comparison with other similar properties

Although other deep-sea ecosystems like the Lost City Hydrothermal Field in the mid-Atlantic Ocean and Atlantis Bank in the Indian Ocean have been recognised as possible candidates for World Heritage inscription, none of the 203 natural sites on the World Heritage list include such unique and rare deep sea ecosystem as glass sponge reefs. As “living fossils”, the reefs have similar geological and historical significance to the Burgess Shales, and conjure a similar sense of adventure, discovery, and of other worldliness.

The Great Barrier Reef, Belize Barrier Reef System, and Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park share similarities in that they are living ecosystems built by marine organisms (biogenic) that provide important habitat for a great abundance and diversity of other species. Unlike coral reefs, which are constructed by tens or hundreds of different species of sceleractinian coral, living glass sponge reefs are created by just three species. Other species of glass sponges exist, but only Heterochone calyx, Farrea occa, and Aphrocallistes vastus can fuse together and form reefs. Rather than just building on top of one another, reef-building glass sponges fuse their silica skeletons together to build a rigid but delicate framework.

Other coral reefs on the World Heritage list are all shallow, warm-water reefs built from calcium-carbonate, and are found at numerous locations worldwide. The glass sponge reefs, however, are only found in the cold waters of British Columbia and Alaska where they extract silica to build their skeleton. This different environment means that the glass sponge reefs play a very different, but equally important, ecological role.

Like the Great Barrier Reef, Belize Barrier Reef System, and Tubbataha Reefs Natural Park, cold water corals and sponges have been significantly impacted by bottom contact fishing practices such as trawling and have been identified by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and the Food and Agriculture Organization as a conservation priority.