When North Vancouver resident Shan Bodie saw her fearless mutt Fiddich barking and swimming headlong into a pod of killer whales in Howe Sound recently, 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 we know who 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 that 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 that Howe Sound is “healthier” now than it has been in 100 years.
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 paddle wheeler 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 by-product of a mill process. Mercury never really breaks down, becoming more concentrated with every step it travels up the food chain.
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.
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.
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.
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.”