It wasn't so long ago that beautiful Howe Sound, one of Canada's southernmost fjords and metro Vancouver's playground was suffering from serious air and water pollution. On a trip to Horseshoe Bay with my parents in the 70's for Troll's fish and chips when the conditions were ripe, my nostrils would get a whiff of the rotten egg "smell of money" as my dad called it, coming from the pulp mills. Where once oolican, herring and salmon were so abundant you could practically walk across the sound on their backs according to Squamish Nation oral history, the mercury poisoning from the mills and acid rock drainage from the Copper mine at Britannia Beach, managed to poison food fishing in the Sound.
A trip to Horseshoe Bay with my grandchild today is a different story. The smell of the pulp mills as an indicator of Howe Sound's economy replaced by the sight of tourists. Easily visible in their bright orange survival suits as they return from their Sewell's Seafari adventure tour of Howe Sound excited from having seen a pod of white sided dolphins. People returning from their cabins on one of the many islands in Howe Sound disembark from one of Mercury Marine's water taxis. Mercury is no longer permitted to enter the waters of Howe Sound, but as a reminder the name is now associated with the lucrative water taxi service. Several boats keep busy serving kids camps, recreational property owners and scientists that enjoy the natural environment of the region. We pass by groups of scuba divers returning from a group dive to one of the reefs in the sound abundant with life. Divers share photos of huge octopus, wolf eels, rockfish and spot prawns, all healthy in part due to several areas of the sound being designated as conservation areas. After millions of dollars of investment to treat the never ending run off of acid resulting from the Britannia mine that closed in 70's, commercial and recreation prawning and fishing has returned. With the discovery of the prehistoric glass sponge reefs by local divers, these special bioherms filter the bacteria in the water and provide important habitat for spot prawns and other species. Protection of these reefs from harm is a work in progress.
Overhead my grandson points out a helicopter, this one from a logging company that collects logs selectively cut in the second growth forest patch on the steep sides of the mountains that rise out of the Sound. No longer do we see clear cuts swaths, but logging companies follow the rules of sustainable logging practices. Ferries come and go out from Horseshoe Bay like clockwork taking more and more commuters and tourists to and from Bowen Island, the Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island. Populations of residents ever increasing around the sound as people move out of the city and telecommute from smaller communities around the sound. My grandson shrieks "TRAIN" as a freight train blows his horn enroute from northern parts of BC loaded up with wood pellets, lumber and large pipe that has arrived by freighter from China to the marine terminal in Squamish. The to and fro of goods is a healthy sign that business and trade carries on in Howe Sound, the sight and sounds dwarfed by the larger visual of mountains and sea.
Holding the little hand of this two year old while looking up the Sound towards Anvil Island, named for its shape and once the source for most of the brick that built Vancouver, I never cease to be in awe of this place. I have heard so many times now the drum beat of the Squamish Nation at the Howe Sound Community Forums I have been coordinating for the past four years. They know this place as Atl'Kitsem, the Squamish name for travelling up the Sound. Gatherings of elected officials representing communities from around the sound come together twice a year around common set of values one being "The Forum will encourage communities to work together for the greater good because territorial lines on a map mean nothing in terms of sustainability."
The health of the sound is in recovery, a tenuous recovery as population growth, tourism and development puts pressure on the communities to grow in size, push the boundaries, clearing more land and demand for more services. Environmental controls, remediation and great work of environmental organizations have resulted in a healthier marine environment yet just as we celebrate that recovery we learn of new industrial development that poses a threat to one of the precious estuaries and salmon. How can it be? Since the 70's there have been individuals calling for Howe Sound to be regarded as a unique special area that deserves protection against poorly planned harmful development. With 90% of the region under the management of provincial and federal governments, most of the sound is without a comprehensive plan that takes a holistic view of the Howe Sound region.
The Future of Howe Sound Society was formed in the 2010, the group of individuals believing it is time to push harder for a comprehensive plan. Communities around the sound joined in on the call for a plan to the Provincial government, yet the approach the government took was to embark on a cumulative effects assessment for the region. Over time, this regional assessment of specific natural values of the area, such as grizzly bear, old growth trees, marbled murrelet and more will be consulted in order to determine what impacts development would have on these values. However, with no policy on how decisions are made when thresholds for these values are exceeded, this assessment is no guarantee the ecosystems and biodiversity are protection when faced with pressures of lucrative development.
I joined the Society as the Executive Director in 2013 and have heard the increasing number of voices calling for protection of Howe Sound and seen the inaction by Government. This has led me to the higher aspirations of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural organization and the framework established under the Man and Biosphere program. This program was established in the 60's by the United Nations when it was being realized something needed to be done as people were losing the connection to the environment. The objectives and goals of the strategies put in place by the special UN committee have resulted in over 600 Biosphere Regions around the world, 18 in Canada. The regions are areas of special biodiversity, with conservation and protection at its core, but education and research and learning sites for sustainable development. This sounded like Howe Sound to me.
A group of concerned citizens have now established an initiative for a Howe Sound UNESCO Biosphere Region designation, an initiative that is supported by communities around the sound. UNESCO's declarations on human rights and the rights of Indigenous people are first mean the objectives of conservation and protection of our ecosystems have to work alongside the needs of First Nations and people of the region. The designation by UNESCO does not introduce any laws or get in the way of First Nations or other planning bodies but it would holding all to a higher level of respect and care for the this place. Joining an international network and gaining recognition by the UN would raise the profile of this region and provide the opportunity for Howe Sound to be an example of sustainable practices.
This process is long and takes hard work, but as I hear the ping on my smartphone of yet another message reporting sightings of Orca whales, humpback, minke, sea lions and that fishing is "hot" in Howe Sound, I know it is worth it. I squeeze my grandson's little hand and envision the year 2020 when we celebrate a very sustainable Howe Sound for generations to come under the banner of UNESCO Biosphere Region designation.
Ruth Simons is passionate about Howe Sound. She is a leader of the conservation for this region. A lifelong resident of the Howe Sound area, she has lived and raised her family in Lions Bay for the past 25 years. Ruth is the executive director of both the Future of the Howe Sound Society and the Lead on the Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative.
Facebook: Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative
Facebook: Future of Howe Sound