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Identifying Ecologically and Biologically Significant Marine Areas – a red herring?

23 March, 2017

Photo: Pacific herring (Tavish Campbell)

While for many people budding trees and bulbs signal the return of spring, for coastal ecosystems and communities in British Columbia the changing of seasons is marked by the annual spawning of Pacific herring.

These small, silvery fish, moving in huge schools numbering hundreds of thousands, are one of the most abundant fish on BC’s coast, and are essential forage fish at the centre of coastal ecosystems. Protecting the spawning habitat for these fish is essential. Identifying important habitat areas as Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas (EBSA) by DFO seems like a step in the right direction, but will this designation make a difference to protection, given that it does not seem to trigger any management actions?

Pacific herring spend most of their life offshore in the open ocean, and come to shallow coastal waters every spring to lay their eggs on marine plants and seaweeds such as eelgrass and kelp. Incredible aggregations of all forms of marine and terrestrial species that gather to feed on herring and herring spawn are an annual reminder of the interconnectedness within coastal ecosystems.

Surveys of areas used by herring for spawning help to identify critical habitat for these fish. Some coastal areas are used consistently, indicating their importance as spawning habitat. One such area within the Strait of Georgia is Baynes Sound and Lambert Channel – the marine area between Vancouver Island, Denman Island and Hornby Island. Surveys conducted since the 1920s have found that this area is among the most consistently used spawning areas on the coast of British Columbia, and is listed as “vital” herring spawn habitat by Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) scientists.

The identification of vital herring spawning habitat within Baynes Sound is a major contributing factor to the area’s identification as an Ecologically and Biologically Significant Area (EBSA) by DFO. EBSAs are identified through a scientific process, aimed at classifying important marine areas worthy of enhanced management or risk aversion.

The nutrient-rich waters of Baynes Sound also support globally significant aggregations of marine birds, important haul-out sites for Steller sea lions, significant estuary habitat for juvenile salmon, and excellent growing conditions for shellfish production. In fact, Baynes Sound hosts some of the most intense shellfish aquaculture in British Columbia; approximately half the province’s shellfish farm leases are within this 20-kilometre stretch of coastal water. The plastics used in aquaculture are a major concern for this area as well as the disruption that this activity can cause to herring habitat.

With this heavy concentration of important marine life and human activity, Baynes Sound certainly deserves the “enhanced management” that an EBSA identification calls for, as well as consideration of how to protect vital fish habitat. However, neither the identification of an EBSA nor of vital herring spawning habitat imply any particular restrictions on any human activities or impose any new management requirements, highlighting a disconnect between scientific and decision-making processes.

The identification of Ecologically and Biologically Significant Areas was developed as a tool to focus conservation and management decisions. Areas are evaluated in a science-led process on criteria such as the area’s uniqueness and naturalness, or if it supports key life stages of a species. The identification of an area as biologically and ecologically significant does not give it any special legal status, but is meant to guide appropriate management actions. Without structured guidance however, the inclusion of EBSAs in policy and management has been inconsistent, particularly (as this DFO report notes) in fisheries management decisions.

Recently we visited the community on Denman Island and, along with scientists, federal and provincial government representatives, and members of WWF and SeaLegacy, were given a tour of the Baynes Sound area by the Association for Denman Island Marine Stewards (ADIMS). The ADIMS community group works to protect and preserve the shores of Denman Island and the Baynes Sound marine ecosystem. They are concerned that multiple impacts from human activities in the area are negatively affecting marine habitat. Our discussions during this visit focused on how to facilitate enhanced management within Baynes Sound and Lambert Channel, and protect areas identified as vital habitat for Pacific herring spawning.

ADIMS has asked that no further commercial projects be approved (particularly development of additional aquaculture) within the EBSA until a Cumulative Effects Environmental Assessment has been conducted to determine how current levels of commercial activity interact with the marine ecosystem and herring spawning habitat. They have also proposed that Baynes Sound and Lambert Channel be considered in the development of Marine Protected Area (MPA) networks within the Strait of Georgia. EBSAs have been used to identify candidate MPAs, and have been highlighted within environmental assessment processes. Development of management requirements and guidance for EBSAs would ensure that these important ecological features are considered in decision-making.

Our discussions on Denman Island have begun to lay the groundwork to develop a dialogue between all those connected to and concerned with the Baynes Sound ecosystem, to identify how to develop the management and protection efforts that these important areas deserve. It’s encouraging to see that the Islands Trust is investigating ways it can use its powers to protect the foreshore in Baynes Sound. The K'ómoks First Nation is another essential government voice in the future of this area.

The scientific processes that identify significant habitat areas in the ocean should inform and shape decisions, ideally resulting in meaningful protection. This connection between science and decision-making is key to supporting healthy marine habitats and ecosystems – ensuring that species like Pacific herring can continue to use these areas for years to come.


By Maryann Watson, Marine Campaigner