About Howe Sound

Author: Bob Turner, Geoscientist and Citizen Scientist, Bowen Island, Howe Sound
Banner Photo Credit: Tracey Saxby

Howe Sound, an inlet of the Salish Sea cut deep into the mountains, is the seaward part of famed Sea to Sky country. Currently the home and traditional territory of the Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation), the Sound has been inhabited by indigenous peoples since long before recorded time – for at least 9800 years according to archeological evidence. It is a great gift of natural circumstance that Howe Sound, a place of such wild beauty, survives just next door to the hectic Vancouver world of two and a half million people.


The entire B.C. coast, from Vancouver to Alaska, is an ice-carved fiord land. Howe Sound, like other fiords, is narrow and steep-walled north of Porteau Cove; but to the south it is a broad, island-strewn sound that makes it both more accessible and habitable.

Picture 1

“For the Squamish Nation, geography is at the heart of everything. We are not exaggerating when we say that the mountains, rivers, lakes and ocean have shaped our histories, customs, arts and artisanship. Indeed, the landscape of southwest British Columbia has shaped who we are and the way we live.” (Photo: Gary Fiegehen)

The waters of Howe Sound are strongly influenced by the rivers and streams that flow into it; smaller streams to the east and west, but extensive to the north where tributaries of the Squamish River draw from high mountains and glaciers.

Given its proximity to Vancouver, Howe Sound is amazingly wild, with visible and charismatic species including harbour seals, whales, porpoise and dolphins, seabirds and shorebirds, eagles in record setting concentrations, black and grizzly bears, abundant deer, and with the less visible but world famous underwater cloud sponge reefs. Howe Sound is also Vancouver’s playground. Squamish fairly considers itself Canada’s Outdoor Recreation Capital given its unique combination of climbing, biking, wind sports, hiking, and paddling opportunities. Distributed around its shores are nine marinas and four yacht stations, one of the highest concentrations of summer cottages in coastal B.C., and the largest cluster of summer camps and outdoor education facilities in the Province.

In the last century, the Sound witnessed rapid industrial development, pollution and significant environmental degradation. Most of the damaging activities have been curtailed, effects of pollution mitigated, and natural habitats have been somewhat restored. The industry that remains provides socio-economic benefits and operates with an environmental awareness not present in the past.

Howe Sound is showing signs of recovery. Recent observations of herring, dolphins, whales, and some salmon species are promising. In parallel with this environmental recovery has been the rise of community groups to take on the responsibility of citizen science, restoration, and repair in this era of declining government capacity. Nature is proving resilient, but as we go forward, we need to foster a stewardship of Howe Sound that shows we have learned from our past mistakes.

 “Howe Sound watersheds provide an estimated annual value of $800 million to $4.7 billion in ecosystem services. The natural systems provide residents with food, clean water, a stable climate, protection from natural disasters and a place to relax, recreate and reconnect with nature.” In addition to watersheds, the marine ecosystem provides an estimated service value between $100 million and $2.8 billion (2014 $Can).

– from Sound Investment: Measuring the Return on Howe Sound’s Ecosystem Assets (Michelle Molnar, 2015, David Suzuki Foundation) 

About This Report

Author: Karin Bodtker, MRM, Manager, Coastal Ocean Health Initiative, Coastal Ocean Research Institute

Based on several years of research focusing on marine ecosystem indicators, CORI identified seven reporting themes for its Ocean Watch series. These themes taken together touch on ecological, socioeconomic, cultural, and governance aspects of ecosystem health and provide a window to the whole picture of what is happening in an area.

CORI set out to report on the status of coastal ocean health in Howe Sound, having listened and heard the need for such a compilation at Howe Sound Aquatic Forums in 2014 and 2015. These forums brought together First Nations, governments, businesses, community members, and people from many walks of life from around the Sound to share knowledge and discuss opportunities to work together.



CORI’s seven themes inform ecosystem health.

The set of articles in each theme represents a collection of topics that were unearthed at the Forums with some additions made when we started soliciting data and information. There are gaps from a technical standpoint, but the topics presented rose to the top in larger community and scientific discussions about issues in the area.

Each article underwent review by an expert in the appropriate field; reviewers are listed by name, with a few exceptions.  Due to the limited number of experts related to Howe Sound, we asked reviewers to identify any inaccuracies and unsupported statements rather than undertake a lengthy formal blind peer review process. We welcome comments on the accuracy of the information presented. Note that the PDF versions of articles include sources and references.

In order to provide a snapshot assessment of all the status information we compiled, a rating scheme was developed. The ratings say as much about the need for action related to any topic as they say about the health status overall.  Ratings were assigned by CORI staff based on the authored papers.  Authors were asked to review and comment.  Due to limited data and expert capacity, it was not possible to undertake a solely quantitative assessment based on defined benchmarks, targets, and reference points.

Over the past year, as editor of this report, I have had the pleasure of working with a remarkable collection of authors, reviewers, and contributors who have each generously shared their special knowledge. I want to especially thank Bob Turner who assisted me in soliciting, writing, editing, compiling and shaping this report.

About the Ocean Health Index...


To supplement our assessment, we invited the scientists behind the Ocean Health Index to contribute quantitative assessments to parts of this report. You will find three articles, linked in the table below, that present OHI scores and explanations. We hope you find this additional perspective informative.

What is the Ocean Health Index?


Regions within British Columbia included in the full Ocean Health Index assessment to be completed in 2017, plus smaller Howe Sound sub-region designation included in this report.

Author: Courtney Scarborough, Project Scientist, Ocean Health Index

The Ocean Health Index (OHI) is working with B.C. partners over the next year to measure and track ocean health not just within Howe Sound, but across all of British Columbia. Overall, the project aims to address three core questions that inform management of healthy oceans in British Columbia:

  1. How do different communities view and value aspects of ocean health, and how does this influence people’s understanding of how healthy the ocean is?
  2. How can the Ocean Health Index be used to inform and support ongoing comprehensive ocean planning efforts across British Columbia?
  3. Have past management actions affected overall ocean health, and if so, in what ways?

What aspects of ocean health did the Index measure in Howe Sound?

The Ocean Health Index team worked with members of the Coastal Ocean Research Institute (CORI) to identify aspects of ocean ecosystem health that could be further informed by quantitative information provided by the Ocean Health Index.

We have added three articles, linked in the table below under OHI Goal, that provide quantitative information about the following Themes to help tell the full story of ocean health in Howe Sound:

CORI Theme OHI Goal
Sense of Place and Wellbeing Sense of Place
Oceanography and Climate Change Coastal Protection and Carbon Storage
Species and Habitats Biodiversity

How is the Ocean Health Index calculated?

Ocean Health Index scores are calculated separately for each goal people have for healthy oceans and then combined to get an overall score on a scale of 0-100. Goal scores are represented by the length of the petals in a flower plot, and the overall score is in the center.

OHI flower plot showing scores from the 2016 global assessment for all of Canada’s oceans combined.

This flower plot shows scores from the 2016 global assessment, where all of Canada’s oceans were assessed together. By incorporating local information, our work will evaluate ocean health at a finer resolution with goals tailored to British Columbia, providing scores for all of the regions shown in the map above.

An overall OHI score for Howe Sound was not calculated as data to inform scores specific to Howe Sound were available for a limited number of OHI goals.

To learn more about calculating the Index and other regional assessments that have been conducted please visit:

How to cite this report or acquire a printed version...


Suggested citation:

Bodtker, K. (Editor). 2017. Ocean Watch: Howe Sound Edition. Coastal Ocean Research Institute, Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. Vancouver, B.C., Canada. 365 pp. Available online: http://oceanwatch.ca

Suggested citation format for individual articles:

Author last name, initial. 2017. Article title. In: Bodtker, K. (Ed.). 2017. Ocean Watch: Howe Sound Edition. Coastal Ocean Research Institute, Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. Vancouver, B.C., Canada. 365 pp. Available online: http://oceanwatch.ca

Method for acquiring a printed copy of the report:

We distributed the printed version of the full report to authors in thanks for their efforts, but we did not do a large print run, due to environmental impact and cost. We are collecting names of those who would like to order a printed copy, which will run between $100 and $150 each, depending on the size of the order. If you would like to be put on the list, please contact oceanwatch@vanaqua.org. We will advise you of the cost before we place an order.

Share on your social network

Visit our sites: