A wedge of water bound by the forest-cloaked slopes of the Coast Mountains stretches from the wide embrace of the Salish Sea to the tight clasp of the Squamish River. I marvel at it every time I drive the 45-kilometre-long sweep of Sea to Sky highway that skirts British Columbia’s southernmost fjord from Horseshoe Bay to Squamish. I’ve camped on Howe Sound’s craggy shores at Porteau Cove, inhaled its briny and resinous fragrance hiking up the Stawamus Chief, and watched seals catch salmon in the Squamish River Estuary. My awe at its dramatic beauty only deepened this year as it was designated the UNESCO Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound Biosphere Region.
Átl’ka7tsem (pronounced At-KATsum) is the name the Squamish people gave to the body of water as they paddled between the Squamish River and the Salish Sea, “paddling up the sound.” Driving alongside, I feel the ebb and flow of Howe Sound as its ridges spread in strata that soften and fade and drop into the Strait of Georgia. I also feel the weight of time. The fjord was formed some 20,000 years ago by the retreat of glaciers, and Indigenous people have lived here for millennia.
It was only in 1792 that the area was named Howe Sound by Captain George Vancouver. After colonization came industrialization, including the largest copper mine in the British Empire at Britannia Beach, with its harsh toll on the surrounding ecosystem. As Chris Lewis, a Squamish Nation council member and spokesperson, said of the environmental impact, “I remember growing up as a young Squamish person learning that the area around Britannia, and largely the sound, was dead.”
The mine shuttered in 1974 and is now an educational and historical museum that acknowledges its place on the unceded territory of the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) First Nation. A collaborative effort involving the Squamish Nation, community groups, local municipalities, and the provincial government resulted in a remediation project that included a water treatment plant. Within a few decades, whales returned.
Today, the biosphere is home to 721 native non-marine animal species, from grizzly bears to bald eagles, and thousands of marine species, even one thought to have gone extinct 40 million years ago. Living glass sponge reefs were first found in 1987 in the Hecate Strait off Haida Gwaii, a discovery scientists likened to “finding a herd of dinosaurs on land,” and then in the early 2000s in the sound.
Citizen science, an essential part of the joint efforts to protect and restore the sound, was behind the discovery of these ancient organic reefs known as bioherms. A local amateur diver, Glen Dennison, was one of the first to see and document the glass sponge reefs with a makeshift drop camera and PVC pipe (and has since been honoured with a Coastal Ocean Award for his innovative use of technology).
Jessica Schultz, who’s worked as a researcher and diver for the Vancouver Aquarium and is the marine ambassador of the biosphere, says the sound’s glass sponge reefs are remarkable because they’re so accessible, some as shallow as 21 metres (which also makes them much more vulnerable to climate change and damage from human activities). She describes the white, yellow, or orange animals as candelabras with melted wax. “They can be small, the size of your hand, or big, the size of a car,” and from far away, the bioherms “look like meringue and are about as fragile.” Even more amazing is that the glass sponge reefs in the Pacific Northwest are a crucial carbon sink, which “absorb about as much carbon in two and a half days as a hectare of forest does in an entire year,” Schultz says.
The glass sponge reefs in the Pacific Northwest are a crucial carbon sink and absorb about as much carbon in two and a half days as a hectare of forest does in a year.
And this is just offshore at Lions Bay, Bowen Island’s Dorman Point, and 12 other reef sites. In West Vancouver at Whytecliff Park, there are also rockfish, crustaceans, sea stars, ribbon worms, and slugs such as the fairy-like hooded nudibranch, along with a sea anemone garden that looks like “big flowers or big bushels of cauliflower, all over the rocks,” Schultz says. “And then there are the more charismatic things,” she adds, recalling encounters with super-interactive octopuses, a pod of hundreds of Pacific white-sided dolphins, humpbacks rubbing themselves against rocks, and inquisitive sea lions, which are “like being in the water with a grizzly bear. They can get up to 2,000 pounds, but they’re just so graceful and elegant and curious.”
Eight Howe Sound glass sponge reef marine refuges are now part of the core, protected parts of the biosphere. And although the waters of the sound may seem like the shiny centrepiece of the newly recognized biosphere, they’re just 16 per cent of its 218,723 hectares. The terrestrial component of this vast watershed makes up 84 per cent, including such protected areas as Cypress, Tantalus, and Garibaldi provincial parks. A biosphere encourages learning, revitalization, and sustainable development, but its UNESCO designation extends no new protections. Five per cent of the land within its borders is privately owned or “urban,” including parts of West Vancouver, Bowen Island, Squamish, Gibsons, and Lions Bay.
Lions Bay is home to Ruth Simons, lead of the Átl’ka7tsem/Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative Society. “I’ve lived here all my life,” she says, “and I still, every day, learn something new about the place.” The idea to bring international attention to the sound was hatched long ago, Simons says, but “it was in 2016 that a small group of us started to really explore the real possibility of a UNESCO designation.” They visited the Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Region on Vancouver Island’s west coast, one of Canada’s other 19 UNESCO biospheres. The group grew into an extensive coalition of First Nations, governments, researchers, and community groups. Simons says there are now some 65 organizations in the region, working on research, monitoring, education, conservation, restoration, and climate action.
When the biosphere designation was officially announced in September 2021, Roda Muse, secretary-general of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, gave a congratulatory statement, noting that UNESCO calls these designations biosphere reserves, but Canada calls them biosphere regions. “We don’t like the word ‘reserve’ for two main reasons,” she explained. “First, it has negative associations with the Indian Act. Second, it suggests that it is land where human development is excluded.” In reality, she observed, these are innovative places that find local solutions for people and nature to thrive together, places for reconciliation in action, reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples, and reconciliation between people and the lands and waters.
Collaborative stewardship underpins the sound’s reclamation and resurgence as a UNESCO biosphere. “My hope is that it will effectively bring all communities in Átl’ka7tsem together for effective decision-making but also to help people get out on the land,” said Joyce Williams, Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation) councillor and co-chair of the Howe Sound Biosphere Region Initiative Society Board. “Building that connection, to the territory and the land, will help people better honour and respect the environment but also the life that lives in that environment.” Williams grew up in the traditional village of Waiwakum, on the bank of the Squamish River, and has paddled as her ancestors did, by dugout canoe, from Átl’ka7tsem to Bella Bella in a three-week journey of profound reconnection.
Rebuilding relationships—people, land, waters—is fundamental to the biosphere. Simons wants people’s curiosity sparked as they look up the sound on their next ferry ride, to think about the parks on the mountaintops and the sixgill sharks in the deep waters below, “and also be aware that this is still the home of First Nations people and their ‘wild spirit places’ that need to be respected.” She hopes the biosphere designation gives people an opportunity to learn the Squamish place names, what they mean and stand for, and their connection to history and story.
It’s something I’m vividly aware of as I try to distinguish the Squamish names for the sound: Átl’ka7tsem, Nexwnéwu7ts, or Txwnéwu7ts (the first is most commonly used). Their meanings are pragmatic, referring to paddling north or south, with a connection to place. I think of this now as I travel to and fro on the Sea to Sky highway, grateful to add yet another layer of wonder to the sound that unfolds each time I trace its shores.
Read more from the Winter 2021 issue.