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Irrepressible Howe Sound

An enigmatic fjord swirling with the after-effects of industrial activity and shining with remarkable comebacks of nature

"I'm not sure if two people can fit in this boat with all this equipment," warns Squamish conservationist John Buchanan with a grin, as I step tentatively into The Mandy Lynn, a 3.7-metre aluminium car topper. 

I force a smile and manage to squeeze in the seemingly precarious vessel at the Squamish dock, finding a place amongst the pile of cables and camera gear.

We motor out across Howe Sound's crystal clear waters and five kilometres later we near Woodfibre, an ex-logging town currently undergoing remedial treatment after decades of industrial activity. Buchanan speaks in a low voice telling me of the environmentally-damaging activities of the pulp mill over the years, adding that he is not welcome here, while personnel eye us suspiciously from the shoreline. We're safe out here on the water, though, as we are not trespassing, so I start to relax and gaze around the buildings and dock.

When Buchanan indicates it's time, we manoeuvre ourselves carefully in the shaky boat and lower down 76.2 metres of cable plus his homemade underwater camera into the ocean about 50 metres off-shore of Mill Creek. Given the history of misuse of the area, I didn't have high expectations as to what we would find, so was utterly shocked when, as we huddled over the small computer screen and squinted, we spotted curious fish approaching the light of the camera, along with jelly fish at the 30.5-metre level, a few spotted prawns, a voracious-looking crab and multitudes of tiny invertebrates of the depths.

Buchanan admits he was also amazed at the amount of life we witnessed.

"It's not lifeless," he said later on, "I mean — things are coming back in that area, right? You think about how much was dumped in front of Woodfibre over the years. And that is the start of the food chain down there at that depth. That's where everything starts in the ocean ... the phytoplankton and the micro-organisms."

Resiliency is a trademark of Howe Sound — despite decades of industrial activity, this is just one example of a series of remarkable comebacks of nature occurring throughout the sound.

A story of movement

Howe Sound is British Columbia's most southernmost fjord. Stretching for 42 kilometres from the Strait of Georgia to where it laps ashore at its most northerly point at the town of Squamish, Howe Sound was carved up approximately 20,000 years ago by the movement of the glaciers, as they slowly crept across the region, leaving huge gouges in their wake.

As for the first human inhabitants of the area, Squamish historian Eric Anderson fills me in on the Squamish Nation's strong connection with Howe Sound — one which commenced 9,000 years ago, according to archaeological evidence located near Vancouver.

Traditionally used for subsistence gathering and fishing activities, Howe Sound played a vital role in the lives of the Squamish people.

"The acknowledged border between the two peoples (Sechelt and Squamish) is at Roberts Creek," says Anderson, "so this in effect makes Howe Sound a Squamish Nation "lake" — so there were not only seasonal camps but permanent settlements around the perimeter of Howe Sound."

He adds that the story of Howe Sound as far as human use is concerned is one of movement.

"In pre-contact time and right up to 100 years ago, there were summertime and wintertime movements of the Squamish people," Anderson says, noting that because Howe Sound was a travel route, there are countless stories connected with places dotted along its shores.

After the spring eulachon fish harvest in northern Howe Sound, the Squamish people would move south to Burrard Inlet and the Fraser River where — after setting up secondary dwellings and taking part in the Fraser River eulachon and then sockeye fisheries — they would then return to Squamish for the winter.

This way of life was forever altered in 1792 when Captain George Vancouver entered the sound and named it after Admiral Earl Howe.

"The colonial administrators always used to speak about the Squamish people's roving ways. And they wished they would curb their roving ways," says Anderson, adding that the Squamish people never did fully conform to their demands.

But they did adapt, he noted, and when the saw-milling industry evolved in Burrard Inlet in the 1860s, Squamish Nation men specialized in ship loading activity and the women worked in canneries.

Boom times

According to Anderson, Howe Sound plays host to several ghost towns.

He is referring to a scattering of towns, which, in their heyday, hosted communities of thousands of workers and their families.

One of these towns is Britannia Beach.

In 1888, copper was discovered in the mountains around Britannia Creek, just south of Squamish. Large-scale mining began in 1905, and by 1929 Britannia Mine was prized as the largest copper mine in the British Empire.

The mine closed in 1974. Today approximately 300 residents call the town home and the mine itself is now a thriving tourist attraction.

Woodfibre was also a prosperous community for most of a century.

Originally called Britannia West, Woodfibre is located on the west side of Howe Sound and in 1912 a mill opened at the site where Mill Creek empties into the sound. The town site of Woodfibre was soon constructed at the remote location, which was accessible only by boat. Until the 1960s, families lived, worked and played at Woodfibre. At that time, the town site began to be demolished, and families moved to nearby communities. After operating for 94 years, the mill finally shut its doors in March 2006.

Legacy of environmental abuse

Part of Britannia's historical legacy has been the large amounts of toxic effluent it has deposited into the sound, says Jeff Gau of the Future of Howe Sound Society (FHSS).

"[Howe Sound] has a sad history of industrial mismanagement and abuse and over the past 20 years, it has been the subject of millions of dollars in reclamation projects to restore its health. The decommissioned copper mine at Britannia Beach discharged considerable toxic effluent including copper, cadmium, iron and zinc into Howe Sound between 1905 and 2001. At one point, the area around the mine was described as the 'worst point-source mineral contamination in North America,' and had a devastating effect on local fish populations."

He notes that a recent Crown report has shown that the cost of the Britannia Beach cleanup alone has already reached $46 million and may well reach $200 million, paid for by B.C. taxpayers.

And according to Buchanan, the situation at Woodfibre was no better.

"The Woodfibre site was always a polluter," he says, "It produced a lot of dioxins over the years. It was just incredibly toxic."

When Woodfibre went out of business in 2006, the province took charge of clean-up efforts of the polluted site — an ongoing process that includes the construction of a water treatment plant built to process leachate seeping from the old dumpsite.

Secrets of the depths

Buchanan has always been captivated by the mysteries of Howe Sound — a fascination, which led him to conduct research and locate a book containing the observations of a manned submersible, the Pisces IV, on numerous dives in Howe Sound during the 1970s and '80s.

One of their most remarkable findings was the sighting of glass sponges.

Glass sponge reefs were common when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. In the late Jurassic period, a massive sponge reef stretched across a prehistoric sea where Europe is today. But ocean conditions changed. Glass sponges survived, dotting the world's oceans as individuals. But their reefs were thought extinct 30 million years ago — until an astonishing discovery in the late 1980s in B.C. waters.

"It was fascinating to know that, in our own backyard, we have these rare glass sponges," Buchanan said.

The world's oldest multi-cell organisms, glass sponges produce a skeleton made from silica (glass) extracted from sea water and generally exist in deep, cold parts of the Pacific and the southern ocean bordering Antarctica. The continental shelf off of the B.C. coast provides the unique environment that allows them to form vast reefs in water only 150 to 200 metres deep.

There are four glass sponge reefs in Hecate Strait in Queen Charlotte Sound and two in nearby Georgia Strait. Estimated to be more than 9,000 years old and spanning more than 700 square kilometres, the reefs have been dubbed the Amazon rainforest of the ocean.

A possible threat to the sponges and other marine life is heating up at Halkett Bay, a small inlet on Gambier Island in Howe Sound. The Artificial Reef Society of B.C. has been spearheading a campaign to sink a naval vessel there as a site for recreational diving.

Ramona C. de Graaf, a marine biologist and forage fish specialist, wrote a letter to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in September 2011 expressing her concern over the lack of surveys for critical fish and marine habitat.

She worries that heavy metals, such as lead & copper, and PCBs, will escape from the ship.

"Placing a very large point-source of contaminants in Halkett Bay in the immediate proximity of habitats used as spawning and rearing habitats of fish seems counter to the decades of efforts to restore the health of the Strait of Georgia," de Graaf wrote.

Forage fish species such as Pacific herring, Pacific sand lance and surf smelt are the cornerstone of the marine food web connecting zooplankton to a host of secondary predators, including salmon and the provincially-listed coastal cutthroat trout. Both Chinook and Coho salmon feed on sand lance both as juveniles and as adults.

Numerous fish, seabird, and marine mammal populations are in precipitous decline in B.C., notes de Graff, and scientists have started to look at the link between forage fish biomass reduction and these declining populations.

Successfully rebuilding endangered populations and local salmon stocks may rely, in part, to protecting local forage fish stocks, she says.

Surf smelt and Pacific sand lance use intertidal sandy-gravel beaches for spawning, high on the beach near the log line. But this unique spawning behaviour puts them directly in a zone vulnerable to shoreline modifications, areas de Graaf would like to see factored into B.C. land-use practices.

Howe Sound as a dump site

According to Buchanan, a lot of the issues facing Howe Sound are linked to the mentality of viewing the ocean as a disposal site.

There are several federally-designated dumping sites in Howe Sound right now and he points out that in 2008, more than 15,000 cubic metres of material — enough to fill 2,500 dump trucks — was dumped at the Watts Point dump site, north of Britannia Beach, to make room for upgrades to the Sea to Sky Highway.

"What are you killing on the bottom of the ocean?" he asks, adding he believes there is a lot down there that hasn't been studied.

These days, with government cuts, says Buchanan, what's happening out of necessity is that people are stepping forward and more citizen science is being conducted.

Case in point: the Shipwreck Exploration and Conservation Society (SECS).

A local diving group with a penchant for exploration, they assisted Buchanan in conducting a survey of the Canadian Coast Guard ship, Ready, a twin-screw, diesel-powered search and rescue cutter, which sank in January 2011 off Britannia Beach.

Russell Clarke, director of media and communications, wrote in an email that it is unclear exactly how the ship sank, but one thing that is known is that it wasn't prepared to be underwater.

SECS completed a series of dives on the wreck and found few problems with the Ready.

But as the wreck rusts and degrades, its structural integrity could be compromised and subsequently let out contaminants.

"The real truth is that Britannia has for a long time been a dumping ground," wrote Clarke. "For decades this area has been used to keep things out of sight and out of mind."

He notes the biggest threat currently to the ocean are two ships still barely afloat at Britannia Beach. A recent survey showed they could sink at any time.

If they go down, like the Ready, will they present a risk to the marine life that is finally returning to the area?

Derelict vessels — ticking time bombs

Speaking of sinking, Clarke points out that B.C. has "an undeniable history of letting ships deteriorate and sink without proper attention or respect of our oceans."

Buchanan is well aware of this phenonomen.

On a brisk morning in May, we jumped into his boat at Porteau Cove and headed towards the imposing Anvil Island set in the heart of Howe Sound. Steep cliffs and bald eagles eye us as we pass by, and then as we came around the back of the island, a most disconcerting sight awaited us.

There, docked in a cove sat a BC Ferry vessel, the Queen of Saanich.

Buchanan echoed my thoughts when he said: "It's alarming because it's tucked away, almost deliberately hidden from the public and ruining this beautiful picture of a relatively pristine wilderness."

Last October he received a phone call from a local resident alerting him to the abandoned vessel. Since then he has been going there to investigate allegations of illegal ocean dumping taking place as part of the salvaging operation.

"I haven't been able to conclusively tell whether there has been dumping or not," Buchanan says, adding that back in January he scaled the cliffs overlooking the cove to have an overview of the activities onboard the vessel.

When I glance up at the ragged cliffs, I remark that it must have been quite a climb and he laughs.

"I am a bit of a cop," he says, "an environmental cop and Howe Sound is my beat."

So Buchanan perched on top of the cliffs and took photos, and discovered what he believes was an industrial operation going on, involving the burning of insulation off copper wires.

"It's an extremely toxic process. It has no business being done anywhere, let alone out there in the middle of Howe Sound," he said.

Buchanan informed Environment Canada and provincial agencies of his concerns and discovered what he calls "a jurisdictional nightmare."

"I've been told, the way the law of the sea is that if you have a vessel you can go anywhere in the world, tie up anywhere and do what you want ... it's a legal black hole that no one wants to go near."

He points out the agencies did respond and visit the site but the operation continued.

"What is really upsetting to me is how we dispose of our old vessels here, on the coast of B.C.," he says. "Steel is the number two polluter in the world and whenever there is an opportunity to recycle steel, it should be taken. It is the environmentally smart thing to do. You would think that BC Ferries would take some responsibility for an exit strategy for their vessels, but that doesn't seem to be the case. And we end up having their old vessels hanging around Howe Sound and they're sinking."

Deborah Marshall, director of media relations for BC Ferries said in a phone interview that the Queen of Saanich was sold in the fiscal year of 2009/2010 and that the vessel was in compliance with Transport Canada standards at the time.

When questioned about the vessel being dumped behind Anvil Island, she replied: "We have seen media coverage about it, but once we've sold the vessel, it's no longer our concern."

Meanwhile, a breaking news story emerged as I was researching this article.

On July 18, the Future of Howe Sound Society released a report stating that the Queen of Saanich would be patched and sent on its way to the Mexican ship breakers who bought her recently.

Apparently after recent coverage on CTV News it became enough of an embarrassment that local and regional authorities stepped up to deal with the situation, stated the report. Peter Grainger of CTV News reported that Pacific Boat Brokers in Parksville had negotiated a deal to sell the remaining ship to professional ship breakers who will tow the vessel down south to be broken up — The Queen of Saanich was towed from the site September 8.

It's reasonable to expect the costs associated with the cleanup and dismantling now are far less than the costs to clean up after something catastrophic happens, states the report.

Herring stages a comeback

Buchanan has spoken with many long-term residents from Squamish who vividly recall the days when a huge commercial herring fishery existed in Howe Sound.

"I remember one of the old-timers telling me that it seemed like you could walk across these commercial herring fishing boats from one side of Howe Sound to the other."

But by the 1970s, the herring were completely wiped out and Buchanan says he believes overfishing was the biggest contributing factor.

Herring are resilient, he says, but overfishing combined with pollution from industrial activity likely caused their demise.

"It's a thousand cuts that ended up killing them, I think," says Buchanan.

This is where the Squamish Streamkeepers have been fundamental in aiding in the return of the herring.

Since 2005, the group has embarked on a herring recovery project, focused on wrapping creosoted pilings with weed control material to enable herring to spawn on the pilings in the Mamquam Blind Channel and the east pier of the Squamish Terminals.

Creosoted pilings spell death for herring roe.

Cooley points out that according to scientific studies, there is a 90 per cent mortality rate for herring roe on creosoted piling.

"And if they don't kill the herring outright, then they cripple them, they are deformed and they don't become effective fish," says Cooley.

"In the U.S. they no longer allow creosoted pilings to be installed so we're ten years behind the States, I'm embarrassed to say."

Cooley deems the program a success and estimates that about 600 tonnes of herring this past year have returned to Howe Sound.

He points to the return of Pacific white-sided dolphins, orcas and Dall's porpoises as a strong link to the return of the herring roe as the dolphins feed on the herring. In fact, in 2010, a grey whale showed up in the Squamish Estuary for the first time in 100 years.

"Because of the herring, there's been a revival of life throughout Howe Sound," Cooley says.

That revival has also been documented by the Vancouver Aquarium's Howe Sound research program. Since 1981 the group has conducted field research and long-term monitoring of habitats and animals in the sound.

On July 10, Vancouver Aquarium fish research scientist Jeff Marliave had the opportunity to take part in a mid-water trawling expedition onboard the WE Ricker with Department of Fisheries and Oceans — the first deep water trawl to be conducted in Howe Sound.

The scientists were gathering information on the different marine species hauled aboard and what they discovered came as a complete surprise.

The ensuing catch yielded adult herring, a species previously thought to migrate out of the sound once the fish reached the adult stage.

Older herring were caught opposite Bowen Island, as well as a high density of two-year-old herring in surface waters up by Squamish. Krill was also found in abundance, which is a fundamental food source for ocean inhabitants, Marliave noted.

The adult herring are the perfect size for white-sided dolphins to feed on, which may solve the mystery of why the dolphins have taken up residence in Howe Sound, he says.

Marliave questioned whether the increased numbers of herring could be partly attributed to a changing climate. In the past two years, the coast was hit with two La Niñas — an ocean-atmosphere phenomenon in which the Pacific Ocean's sea surface temperature is lower than average.

He says he believes we have experienced a climate regime shift and that further research on krill could provide answers.

However, recent government cutbacks have taken much scientific work off the agenda, "so nobody is looking at it."

New threats loom

An Alberta-based aggregate company, Burnco Rock Products Ltd, has plans to build a 77-hectare large scale gravel mining and crushing facility at McNab Creek, located on the west side of Howe Sound.

The proposed mine is expected to produce one to four million tonnes per annum of sand and gravel for export over a mine life of 20 years.

The project was first proposed by Burnco in 2009 but faced a series of setbacks when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans sent it back to the drawing board with some key unanswered questions. The company says it has addressed DFO's concerns about potential impact on nearby fish habitat — which supports Coho, Chum, Chinook, pink and steelhead salmon and cutthroat trout — but not everyone is convinced.

Buchanan attended a public meeting in West Vancouver held by Burnco a few months ago. It was the first time he saw the plans and says: "I couldn't believe it ... it was like someone came down with a huge shovel from one side of the valley to the other and completely removed McNab Estuary."

Obtaining permission from DFO, Buchanan ventured over to the proposed site and placed fish traps along the creek and estuary.

He was astonished by what he found.

"There was an incredible richness of life that ended up in the traps — every trap was overflowing with fish, cuddies and Coho," he said. "It's an extremely productive area and I can't see how they can go ahead with that operation ... it will devastate the area."

Project manager Derek Holmes says Burnco is engaging in a provincial and federal harmonized environmental assessment review, and as for addressing pollution concerns, Holmes says the company aims to reduce its impact on nearby streams.

"Streamside protection is really well-defined in the province and has been for many years, and all projects, whether they are gravel, urban development projects or otherwise, need to adhere to a strict set of guidelines set forth by DFO," he said.

"The mining and gravel business in particular, are quite good at doing that now, and we accomplish that through set-backs and project design elements like berms and barriers from the streams."

FHSS urged citizens from the region and beyond to weigh in on the public comment process, which ended in February this year. The project is still awaiting a decision from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.

A new chapter

Gau says that efforts to clean up the sound have started to pay dividends, but FHSS recognizes that this recovery is at a fragile stage and needs protection from future abuse and inappropriate land use.

"To do this effectively, a water and land use plan driven by all levels of government and in concert with surrounding communities needs to be developed," he says.

The lack of such a plan is a risk to the economy, states Gau, adding that tourism is a significant revenue, tax and job generator in the B.C. economy, contributing $13.8 billion in revenue.

"There is much potential in Howe Sound to continue to grow the tourism industry with significant economic multipliers that could accrue to the local economy."

Meanwhile Buchanan says he likes the direction that Howe Sound is going in terms of its recovery, but points out it is a work in progress.

"It's an oil spill in the middle of a recovery," he says by way of illustration.

His wish?

To see the public have more respect for the waters.

He adds that he has heard it said before that if Howe Sound was in any other part of the world it would be a national treasure, and the entire sound would be made a marine park.

Not that he promotes that idea.

"I come from an industrial background," he says. "Industry puts food on my table. I don't want to be a Not-in-My-Back-Yard person."

He believes a managed reserve is the way of the future.

"Let's welcome industry, but let's do it right this time — let's not have a re-make of Woodfibre, Britannia Mine and the acid mine drainage, or Hooker Chemicals and the 40 tonnes of mercury they lost in only a three-year period."

To learn more on the current issues facing Howe Sound, visit



Hailing the returnof the pinks

A cause to celebrate is the remarkable return of pink salmon to Britannia Creek following a hiatus of more than 80 years.

Jack Cooley, co-chair of the Squamish Streamkeepers society says mining activities initially polluted the creek and killed everything in it.

The installation of the Millennium Plug research station in 2001 plus a water treatment plant built in Britannia seven years ago are credited with eliminating acidic water flowing out of Britannia Creek.

Squamish conservationist John Buchanan was the first to discover a key indicator of Britannia Creek's recovery.

Last summer he discovered pink salmon and steelhead in the creek but he remains cautiously optimistic.

"Nothing was living in that creek at all so now things are starting to rebound," he said. "We're just getting out of the starting gate as far as recovery goes."

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