“Here you get this hopeful feeling. It’s almost like you are watching a person come back to life who has been really sick for a long time and they are getting stronger and stronger. I think that’s a really amazing experience to be a part of—to be at the front end of.”
Norm Hann’s sentiment for Howe Sound is one of hope; he has front row seats to the returning wildlife as he spends extensive time out on the water, exploring the many nooks and backwaters of the region.
Since he moved to the West Coast in 1999, Hann has paddled many different parts of BC’s Coastline. He didn’t really run across the gems around Squamish until a highway closure pressed him to the waters here. “It wasn’t until we had that big rock slide on the highway in 2008 that I had to take a boat from Horseshoe Bay to Squamish. I was like, ‘holy, from the water it’s amazing!’ A lot of people haven’t seen this place from the water. They might have been down to Nexen, but there’s a whole other side.”
The story of Howe Sound’s return is running strong over the past few years. Growing environmental consciousness has changed the way industry exists and how humans interact with Howe Sound. As residents and environmentalists become increasingly aware of the bounty of life in Howe Sound, they have been more inclined towards action to ensure its well-being and longevity. The result has been a resurgence of wildlife to the area: from grey whale, to white-sided dolphins, purple starfish to marbled murrelets.
Hann’s eyes brighten as he conveys the sensation of having an orca whale swim beneath the deck of his board while he’s paddling. It’s these types of experiences that Hann seeks out for clients accompanying him on the water.
“One of the things that can really move you is wildlife. I think as the wildlife starts to come back—when people are out on the Sound and killer whales come back, or there’s a humpback that goes under your board—those are things that then really make that experience much deeper.”
This summer, Hann is taking a few of his first trips along the Sea-to-Sky Marine Trail, a newly formed series of access points and campsites for marine recreationalists.
Bob Turner has resided on Bowen Island since 1989. He recently retired from a post with Natural Resources Canada as a geological scientist, and is a long-time advocate for the well-being of the waters in this area.
Turner has been a keen observer of, not only marine life in Howe Sound, but also the impact of human actions. He sees three key changes that have taken place since the 1970’s, which have set up the circumstances for wildlife to return.
The first, says Turner, is the changes in the pulp mill industry. “In the late 80’s there was the whole recognition that pulp mill pollution was really unmonitored… and that there were carcinogenic substances in pulp mill pollution—dioxins and furans.” Greater regulation was introduced and eventually, both of Howe Sound’s pulp mills cleaned-up.
The second major change was, “…dealing with the metals contamination coming out of Britannia Mine,” explains Turner. “It was a chronic problem for 50 years and it was finally resolved in 2007 with the capture and treatment of mine waters.”
“A third and less noted, but really major accomplishment was the outstanding work on the Squamish Estuary.” In the 1970’s, the estuary was slated to become a major coal port. “That proposal precipitated a giant environmental review and over at least a decade and a half: essentially the slow ship towards recognition that the delta that Squamish is on, was an ecological jewel,” notes Turner. A substantial 579 hectare area of the Estuary has become a dedicated Wildlife Management Area.
“Now a large part of the estuary has formal protection. That, to my mind, is the third major accomplishment in Howe Sound,” he says. According to Turner, these three major changes of the industrial operations in Howe Sound set in motion the return of healthier plankton and the re-establishment of herring. Keystone species like herring are the foundation for a range of larger sea mammals, salmon and birds.
“They say in politics, if you want to understand something, follow the money. In ecology, it’s follow the food.”
In the 1970’s Howe Sound was an industrially damaged area, but things have changed. People have recognized its importance. “It has undergone both an ecological recovery and a human psychological recovery,” says Turner. “Essentially the re-establishment of herring really created the food supply that drew in the bigger predators. I think we’ve all paid attention because who can not get excited about whales and dolphins, sea lions and orcas in your waters?”
“Collectively, we are all very proud and excited about that and it has done something important to our psyche.”
The Return of marine life to Howe Sound is heralded as a success. It’s a case showing that humans can curb our environmental impact and wildlife can return to a place that was severely damaged. But, the saga continues as the classic environment vs. industry trope continues to play out. The potential impact of the Woodfibre LNG project and the proposed gravel mine at McNab Creek are recent concerns.
“It caught us all off guard”, says Turner of the McNab Creek Project. “It seemed like an awful place for a mine… It was not way high in the hills, away from the ocean, but it was just immediately behind the ocean at McNab Creek and as it is digging into the estuary area. That was the reason the Future of Howe Sound Society [an organization which Turner is involved in] got going.”
Turner will continue his work to educate and inform, involving the scientific community and the broad public. His latest project is working with the Vancouver Aquarium in creating the State of Howe Sound Oceans Report. The project is a series of documents on everything from plankton to eel grass, to eagles; it also addresses the socio-economic side of things like marine vessel transport, environmental education, citizen science and governance.
While industrial and environmental interests struggle in Howe Sound, its waters are increasingly appealing for recreationalists. “We haven’t even seen tourism yet on the Sound. It’s crazy going through the Corridor with all the hiking and climbing, you can’t even find a space right? You can still go into the Sound and have a spot for yourself.”
Although it’s not as quiet as in remote parts of the Great Bear Rainforest, Hann still enjoys a certain degree of solitude out on Howe Sound. But, he says, he doesn’t see that being the case for long. Marine tourism is following the same trend as other sorts of tourism in the area—it’s on the rise.
“I’m down at Jericho doing a course last week and there were paddlers, kayakers and sailors and I just envision Howe Sound being like that. Not too far down the road as the waterfront develops and people figure things out a little bit there.”
Hann is concerned about the impact of some of the projects, but maintains optimism. “Now there is the LNG stuff and I’m a little sad about that, because we’ve just begun to give Howe Sound a bit of a break. Really, Howe Sound is a living, breathing thing, that’s starting to get some life back in the last few years. Everybody is sort of helping in their own ways: because of cleaning up of the mine [Britannia], Wood Fibre shutting down, stream keepers doing their work.”
“I think it’s got a really incredible story, a really inspiring story, a really hopeful story.”