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How now, Howe Sound?

Pollution decreasing, wildlife increasing

WHEN North Vancouver resident Shan Bodie saw her fearless mutt, Fiddich, barking and swimming headlong into a pod of killer whales in Howe Sound in late August, she feared he would surely be killed.

Bodie and her family were on the rocky beach outside a rented cabin on an island just off Keats Island when Fiddich saw the transient pod's dorsal fins and bolted after them. Unable to beckon the dog back, Bodie told her kids to look away from the potentially nasty scene.

Luckily, and unbeknownst to anyone present, transient orcas prefer seal over dog meat and the massive predators lost interest. When Fiddich was back safe on the beach, and the shock had worn off, it dawned on Bodie: In all her years of visiting Howe Sound, never had she seen so much wildlife, of all kinds, splashing about.

"It's been quite remarkable. A lot of people that we know that have grown up going to cabins in that area, in these last couple of years, they've really seen a huge increase," she said. "We saw 13 eagles. One of the families next door saw them attacking baby seals. Just the number of fish people are catching, it seems to be on the rise at the moment. . . . We kept saying, 'Wow, we're in National Geographic here.'"

Scientists who have been keeping a close eye on Howe Sound's ecology and wildlife can confirm, pollution levels of some contaminants are the lowest they've been in decades, and seal, fish and marine mammal populations are at possibly record highs. It seems by most measures, Howe Sound is "healthier" now than it has been in 100 years.

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Howe Sound has a history in B.C.: as choice wildlife habitat - and a cradle for industry and all its trappings.

One of the first commercial whale-watching operations in the late 1800s was a paddlewheeler that took Vancouverites to Bowen Island to look at humpback whales. While those whales were later wiped out by commercial whaling, the Britannia Mine and pulp mills at the north end of Howe Sound were dumping industrial waste and mine tailings into the water and tributary streams.

"There have been a lot of different kinds of chemicals discharged into the Strait of Georgia and Howe Sound over the last 100 years and some of them we've stopped the discharge of, and some of them have come up more recently and they're continuing to be discharged," said Sophia Johannessen, a Fisheries and Oceans Canada geochemical oceanographer.

Among the worst culprits was a chlor-alkali plant at the head of Howe Sound that discharged 20 kilograms of mercury a day into the ocean from 1965 to 1970 as a byproduct of a mill process. Mercury never really breaks down, becoming more concentrated with every step it travels up the food chain.

Pulp mills too were discharging so many dioxins and furans the federal government had to step in and ban crab and shrimp fishing until the late 1990s.

Thankfully, changes in industrial processing and the capping of some of the worst sources of mine tailings from Britannia mean that pollutants can now come to rest on the low-oxygen floor of Howe Sound and gradually be covered by natural sedimentation, Johannessen said.

Studies show Howe Sound still has higher concentrations of pollutants than the Strait of Georgia, largely because that's where so many of the pollutants were dumped, but also because the strait, unlike Howe Sound, flushes itself completely every year.

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The recent clean-up of Howe Sound has been accompanied by an explosion in animal populations. Much like the killer whales Bodie thought were going to devour her dog, other cetaceans are spending more time in and around Howe Sound.

"One of the big stories in Howe Sound over the last couple years is the huge increase in sightings of Pacific white-sided dolphins," said Caitlin Birdsall, B.C. Cetacean Sighting Network co-ordinator. "Prior to 2010, we'd only received one or two sightings of dolphins in Howe Sound, and all of a sudden there was a big influx in a group."

The network collects data on whale and dolphin sightings called in through a hotline open to the public (1-866-I-SAW-ONE).

Up until the last 20 years, the dolphins were thought to be just an open ocean species.

Transient killer whales, which hunt in small groups and move freely about in search of food and are thus difficult to track, are also being spotted more frequently, Birdsall said.

"We have had a lot more reports and people on the water are seeing a lot more transient activity on the southern Strait of Georgia. Transient numbers haven't necessarily gone up, but it appears they're using this area a lot more," Birdsall said.

Not surprisingly, it's because they're finding a plentiful food source in the marine mammals they have a particular taste for - harbour seals, Birdsall said.

Harbour seal populations too have had their population numbers hit a high plateau.

"We've seen a big increase in their numbers, back to what we think are probably historical numbers," Birdsall said.

The seals faced a cull in the 1960s when they were considered a nuisance species for interfering with salmon fisheries. When their population fell unsustainably low in the 1970s, they were given government protection.

"There is that lag time between the number of harbour seals increasing and the transients figuring it out. It's become a very good hunting ground for them," Birdsall said.

But transients, unlike the resident orcas who mostly stick with family units and follow migrating salmon, need to maintain the element of surprise when hunting prey, which means they're not likely to stay in Howe Sound for any long period of time, Birdsall said.

"If they are around too long, they give away their presence and they can't be stealthy hunters anymore," she said.

Providing part of the base of the marine smorgasbord found in Howe Sound are herring, which are now residing in its waters full time for the first time since the early 1980s, according to Jeff Marliave, a Vancouver Aquarium marine scientist who has focused on Howe Sound.

And it's not just the herring, Marliave added. "It's everything - rockfish, lingcod - everything is getting fat. . . . There's a class of three-year-old hake that has taken station in Howe Sound and I think that is an absolutely novel observation, just like the dolphins being novel to Howe Sound," he said.

The untold stocks of rockfish still in Howe Sound appear to have been mostly hidden. Their local population was thought to have dwindled since the notoriously easy-to-catch fish seemed to have disappeared.

"In Howe Sound, we have proven and we're about to publish that the incorrectly or uncharted reefs in Howe Sound are the Jurassic Parks - the places that have never been fished because no one's ever known they were there," he said. "Those are the places I ain't telling nobody about."

Marliave predicts things will continue to get better for feeder fish populations over the short term.

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While the clean up of Howe Sound is to be commended and it certainly makes for a more hospitable environment, we probably shouldn't go congratulating ourselves on bringing back the herring and other feeder fish, Marliave said.

It's more likely that naturally occurring phenomena are responsible.

"Everybody understood there were lots of things - dioxins, lead - lots of problems in Howe Sound over the last half-century and hey, it's cleaned up in a hurry, but it's happened in coincidence with fortuitous good weather for plankton blooms and things."

Specifically, two La Nina winters in a row - when central Pacific temperatures go through a temporary, naturally occurring cooling process - have made Howe Sound ideal for the herring.

Only now is the relationship being noticed, Marliave said.

"The literature actually has buried in it, clear trends relating to El Nino and La Nina. It's just that nobody was looking at it before. Because only now can you go online and all this stuff just slaps you in the face," he said. "In terms of these interannual variations, they're tremendously important. Tremendously important."

While it's nice to see Howe Sound brimming with life again, it's not guaranteed to last, Marliave warns, and that too may have nothing to do with pollution or human activity.

"The herring could link out on their own without people being at fault. These things happen. They probably have always happened," he said.

"We're living an era where we're training our little kids that humanity is to blame, and there's good reason for that, but we also have to keep in mind that there have always been good years and bad years - winners and losers. . . . Our First Nations knew there were starving periods in our pre-history."

That said, Marliave remains optimistic about Howe Sound's future as it transitions from an industrial waterway to a place for retirement living and tourism.

And while the sound isn't the toxic dump it once was, it still faces big challenges, according to Johannessen. Among the most serious: climate change, rising seal levels, changing oxygen and PH levels, the leaching of chemical flame retardants found in almost every product and pharmaceutical byproducts being discharged into the oceans from wastewater.

"Overall, Howe Sound is affected by global changes and local changes. The global changes are mostly not going in a good direction for the animals," she said. "But there was such heavy pollution from the pulp mills and the chlor-alkali plant, that cleaning up some of those local effects certainly would help relieve some pressure from the animals, making it easier for them to deal with the global pressures."

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