The Significance of Howe Sound

Thanks to BC Spaces for Nature for the following summary

The most southerly fiord in the northern hemisphere, Howe Sound is backed by rugged mountains that rise directly from the sea to 2,740 meters (9,000 feet). It also features a cluster of picturesque islands. Terrestrial Howe Sound ecosystems (technically referred to in BC as ‘biogeoclimatic zones’) include: Coastal Western Hemlock, Mountain Hemlock, Sub Alpine, Alpine Tundra, and most significantly, the threatened Coastal Douglas Fir (CDF).

The Sound’s marine environment is similarly diverse, with habitats ranging from estuary, to fiord, to archipelago, to inland sea. Not surprisingly, it supports a range of animal species: transiting orcas, the occasional grey whale, white-sided dolphins, California sea lions, seals, salmon, and endangered rock cod. It is an important wintering area for migratory waterfowl: swans, geese, and ducks. As well, it supports a range of seabird species (including marbled murrelet) and is renowned for being home to the strongest bald eagle concentrations in British Columbia, with up to 2,500 eagles gathering at the head of the Sound near Squamish in winter.

Howe Sound has a rich human history that reaches back into ancient times. For thousands of years the Squamish peoples, a first nation within the Coast Salish linguistic grouping, traveled the waters here and lived along the coastline. Today, these people endure and know this place as their traditional homeland. In 1791 Europeans discovered Howe Sound when Captain George Vancouver first explored its  passages. However, the Sound remained a quiet place removed from the focus of colonial activity until the late 1880s when the Union Steamships opened Howe Sound to settlement, development, and eventually, tourism.

Today several small picturesque communities are perched on the steep shores and islands of the inlet. Here the way of life remains leisurely, even laid–‐back, and deeply connected to the natural surroundings. Early economic land use activities in Howe Sound were dominated by the resource sector: fishing, forestry and mining. While these activities endure, they are less dominant in today’s economy. They have been supplemented by a growing emphasis on knowledge and service sector jobs (there are many residents who commute to such jobs in Vancouver daily).  Recreation and tourism are playing an ever increasing and important role, which is not surprising.

Opportunities to enjoy life here are exceptional and diverse, including: sea kayaking, sailing, boating, diving, windsurfing, fishing, hiking, rock climbing, and skiing. Due to this, and given its beauty, the Sound attracts strong usage by locals as well as tourists from across Canada, the U.S., and beyond. Howe Sound is an extraordinary place that encompasses a broad range of exceptional conservation, ecological, recreational and scenic values, right on Vancouver’s doorstep. These values must be recognized and conserved for the benefits they provide.

In many ways while Howe Sound can seem to be a world away from the city… it is so close, and so very special.

Threats / Challenges

Being located adjacent to the Vancouver metropolitan area, and with increasing demands for multiple uses of land and water resources, puts immense pressure on the ecosystem services of Howe Sound (e.g. drinking water, air quality, biodiversity, natural areas, fisheries, etc.). Some of the major threats and challenges, include:

  • Howe Sound’s beauty renders it at risk from indiscriminate development of private lands, especially intensive subdivision of waterfront properties.
  • Marine environment/fisheries are vulnerable to pressures of development that compromise near–‐shore fish habitat.
  • Major landslide risks exist due to the steep slopes of the adjacent mountain and high winter rainfall, especially along the Sea to Sky Highway.
  • A major challenge relating to recreational use of Howe Sound is the shortage of shoreline lands with public access.
  • There is risk of an expansion of the Vancouver Port that would create industrial areas in Howe Sound. For example, a Liquid Natural Gas storage facility was proposed for the Port Mellon area and defeated in 2003.
  • •There is ongoing risk of clearcut logging of ecologically, visually, recreationally, and hydrologically sensitive areas, particularly on steep slopes and also in the rare low–‐ elevation of the Coastal Douglas Fir forest.
  • •Small and large scale mining remains a threat, as the rocks in Howe Sound can often contain arsenic and sulphides (Acid Mine Drainage) that are lethal to fish. The current proposal to operate a large, open pit gravel mine at the mouth of McNab Creek, will further scar wilderness on Howe Sound’s west side.

Vancouver is one of the very few cities on earth to have such an expanse of spectacular, biodiverse, and intact lands and ocean right on its threshold, as exist in Howe Sound. Despite its scenic splendour, ecological diversity, and recreational offerings, surprisingly until now conservationists have often overlooked Howe Sound. Perhaps the area has just been so close to Vancouver that it was taken for granted and never recognized as a distinct region. As a result, while there have been numerous campaigns to address specific issues within Howe Sound (e.g. pulp mill pollution, real estate development), up to now there has never been an overall campaign to secure the Sound’s exceptional natural integrity. This has to change. Unless actions are taken soon to protect the Sound, fast–‐developing urban pressures will result in irreversible losses of Howe Sound’s exceptional values.”

Irrepressible Howe Sound

An in-depth look at Howe Sound’s history and recovery by Dawn Green for Pique Magazine:

“It’s not lifeless,” he said later on, “I mean — things are coming back in that area, right? You think about how much was dumped in front of Woodfibre over the years. And that is the start of the food chain down there at that depth…”

Read the full story in Pique’s Digital Edition (PDF).

Economic Baseline for Howe Sound

Steve Nicol, Lions Gate Consulting

The purpose of this work plan is to assemble baseline economic data for the proposed Howe Sound Protected Area for those values that might be affected by a park designation. The baseline would then be available for subsequent use in the determination of potential effects of park designation. It would therefore align with valued components to be considered in an assessment of effects.

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An Initial Estimate of the Value of Ecosystem Services in Howe Sound

Michele Molnar, David Suzuki Foundation

This is a summary of work that is now underway, results of which will be posted on this site soon.

Our natural environment provides things we need to survive — breathable air, drinkable water, food for nourishment, security from flood and storm, and stable atmospheric conditions, to name a few ecosystem goods and services. Natural systems also provide things essential for every economy to survive, such as oxygen, water and resources, indeed everything in the built environment originated from the natural environment. Natural systems are only now beginning to be viewed as economic assets, providing economically valuable goods and services.

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