The return of whales, dolphins and porpoises to the waters of Howe Sound after a near 100-year absence is a huge victory for conservation efforts. Once devastated by commercial whaling, hunting, and the effects of industrial activities such as mining, logging and pulp and paper production, Howe Sound has seen a resurgence of cetaceans, including orcas, humpback whales and porpoises. Increasing sightings of these and other iconic animals, such as herring and other forage fish, suggest remediation efforts in the Sound have had some success in restoring the health of coastal habitat.
Yet the status of other species is less certain.
While pink salmon have had record runs in recent years, other salmonids are showing signs of struggle recovering to previous abundance. Nearly two decades after the lingcod fishery was closed, numbers of spawning females have failed to rebound significantly. And a mysterious wasting disease afflicting sea stars throughout the Pacific Northwest, including Howe Sound, has caused ripples through the ecosystem.
The variation in the health of different species that call Howe Sound home shows the picture we have of our complex coastal ecosystems is far from complete. As the region faces unprecedented change from a shifting climate, increased human activity, and even conservation efforts, more needs to be done to track the health of the area’s wild inhabitants, from the cetaceans at the top of the food chain to the tiniest organisms that form the basis for all aquatic life.
Ocean Watch Rating Legend
Ratings are meant to provide the reader with a visual snapshot summary about the subject. Subject ratings were assigned by the Coastal Ocean Research Institute based on application of the criteria to the information in each article.
1) The status is healthy according to available data, 2) the trend is positive if known, 3) some data are available, and/or 4) actions to address or mitigate are well underway and are known to be effective. Actions should be taken to maintain positive status and/or trend.
Status, trend, data, and/or actions provide contradictory or inconclusive information. Actions are needed to move into positive status and trend and avoid negative status and trend.
1) Impacts or issues are high risk or have resulted in a low or vulnerable status, 2) improvements are uncertain, minor, or slow, and/or 3) actions to address or mitigate are non-existent, vague, or have low effectiveness. Actions are needed to move into positive status and trend.
Not rated due to the nature of the article, or there are not enough data to produce an assessment.
Species and Habitats (Sealife)
Eagle counts in Squamish and Lower Howe Sound show numbers have rebounded since a low point in the 1970s and 1980s, but eagle populations continue to fluctuate based on available food sources and recent counts are quite low. The local trend is concerning, but elsewhere eagles are abundant and counting efforts are robust.
Dolphins, whales and porpoises have made a triumphant return to Howe Sound after a near 100-year absence, suggesting remediation efforts have been successful in combating the polluting effects of industrial activity. Citizen reporting continues to be a crucial tool in monitoring cetacean populations in the Sound. Still, compared to our impressions of historical abundance, cetacean numbers are low.
A crucial part of our underwater ecosystems, eelgrass beds face threats from human activity such as docks, boat moorings, log booms and coastal erosion. Efforts need to be stepped up to map, track, and re-colonize these underwater meadows.
Plankton are the tiniest and most important organisms in the Sound since they form the basis of the food chain and are crucial for all life in Howe Sound. Unfortunately, their levels have not been surveyed since the 1970s. Although the recovery of whales in the Sound suggests that plankton populations have improved, regular monitoring is needed to track the abundance and productivity of these organisms.
Once thought extinct, the discovery of glass sponge reefs in Howe Sound has spurred a flurry of interest in these ancient organisms. Efforts from citizen scientists, divers and researchers have been instrumental in expanding protected marine areas to safeguard this critical fish habitat. Threats remain and research and advocacy efforts are high.
One of the most common sights along Howe Sound, several species of marine birds are far less common along coastal areas than they once were. Bird count efforts are significant but do not cover the whole Sound.
While one species of salmon thrived in recent years, others remain in reduced abundance as we see variations in ocean conditions, changing patterns in stream flows, rising water temperatures and other effects of human activity and climate change. Populations are low, trends are uncertain, we have few data, but some positive actions are being taken.
Rockfish populations in Howe Sound do not appear to have rebounded since fishing restrictions and conservation areas were introduced. More research and longer-term data are needed to determine whether protected areas have been correctly placed and will have a lasting impact.
Despite the closure of commercial fisheries in the 1990s, lingcod stocks have failed to rebound significantly in Howe Sound. Researchers and citizen scientists continue to monitor populations carefully through annual egg-mass surveys, but threats remain.
A mysterious condition leading to the death of large numbers of sea stars of various species throughout the Pacific Northwest continues to confound the scientific community and could potentially have huge impacts on the marine food chain in Howe Sound. The sunflower star, a keystone species, shows no robust signs of recovery.
In April 2015, a decommissioned naval ship sunk off of Gambier Island became B.C.’s newest artificial reef. More than a year later, marine species are populating the Annapolis, bringing new life to an area of Howe Sound once devastated by the logging industry.
Two decades of revitalization efforts have returned large areas of the Squamish Estuary to a vital wildlife habitat and reversed the effects of human activity and industry. Yet the impact of industry and human intervention will be felt for a long time in this valuable aquatic area.
Despite recent efforts to observe and report observations of herring, anchovy, and even species like dolphins that prey on these fish, we lack robust data that would allow us to assess the status of forage fish.
OHI Score for Biodiversity
Howe Sound scores 68 out of 100 for biodiversity; a score that combines an 80 for species and a 56 for habitats. A healthy ocean provides a diversity of healthy marine species, habitats, and landscapes.