Celebrating International Oceans Day

Marine life abounds around Bowen Island

Louise Loik

E d i t o r

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Harbour Seal pups

Nine months ago, if you spent any time near the local shores, you would have heard the territorial water slapping and coughing that are all part of the seal mating rituals. Now the seals have another agenda, as June marks the start of pupping season around Bowen Shores and along the rest of the B.C. coast.

Kayakers may see tiny seals climbing on top of their moms, being fed mouth-to-mouth, or pushed onto shore to rest.  Like all mammals, these babies need lots of rest and lots of feeding. The moms will leave their young on Bowen beaches and nearby islets while they go foraging for food. Unfortunately, the pups don’t always stay put, they will follow a kayaker out of curiosity or leave their resting place when spooked. Onion Island has long been a popular nursery for seal pups and their moms and ideally, people would keep off the island during this short period of time to let the families rest undisturbed. If there are people or dogs near a pup, the mom will probably not rejoin her infant.

 “We ask those who find a seal pup not to touch it and to keep their pets away. Call us, and we’ll assess the animal,” said Emily Johnson, acting manager of the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre. “The mother will often come back, although unfortunately, that’s not always the case.” In one situation, a very pup was swimming around a private dock in Bowen Bay. Kids were handling the little seal, holding it and attracting more and more attention. Twenty-four hours later, the little seal was calling for its mother, making a sound very much like it was crying “ma-ma.” The mother did not return and by the time it was brought in to the Vancouver Marine Mammal Rescue Centre in East Vancouver, staff concluded that the animal was starving and probably only eight weeks old.

The Vancouver Aquarium Marine Mammal Rescue Centre rescues, rehabilitates and releases more than 100 animals each year; last year, the team rescued more than 160 marine mammals. The Rescue Centre has a complex strategy for rehabilitating seals so that they can return to the wild. The pup in Bowen Bay began to get nourishment with a feeding tube. It progressed eventually to dead fish, then live fish, then live fish with other seals in the tank so that it learned to compete. Once a pup is healthy and can successfully compete for fish, it is returned to the ocean, sometimes, right back off the shores of Bowen.

Though Harbour seals are common, the population remains at risk from persistent organic pollutants from industry in the Sound. They store toxins in their blubber and pass it on to their babies.

The Rescue Centre recommends:

If you see a stranded marine mammal, do not approach it and keep pets away. Please call the Vancouver Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Rescue Centre at 604.258.SEAL (7325) for immediate assistance.

What’s happening along the shore?

On one of the busiest beaches of the island, a toxicologist

decided to do some testing. She was looking for toxins related to

pulp mills and was checking locations around the coast at varying

distances from pulp mills. She happened to hit Bowen Island

as one of her study sites. She found dioxin on the beach, but that

was 20 years ago. Dr. Shannon Mala Bard, marine environmental

scientist and ecological toxicologist will be back to the same site

this weekend to see how the shores are doing today.

“In the old days, when I looked around the mills there were

a lot of problems,” she says. In the mid-1990s, emission laws

kicked in, leading to changes that meant dramatic changes to the

nearby waterways. “They removed elemental chlorine and used

settling ponds which eliminated the fibre mats.” These mats were

the result of wood processing. “The suspended solids decreased

and improved water quality.”

Now Bard has gone back to locations where mills have cleaned

up or shut down – places like Powell River, Howe Sound, Prince

Rupert.

She says it’s easy to see a correlation between the industry

and the quantity of sea life. “We found a tripling of species right

across from outfall of one of the mills 10 years after it was closed

down.”

“Howe Sound has had modest improvements,” she says. After

Saturday’s research on Bowen Island, she’ll know more about the

sound and the possible impact of industry on the Salish Sea.

Sea stars decline creates a ripple effect

The sea star wasting syndrome’s effects on the ecosystem are

yet to be fully understood. One obvious impact is that their prey,

the sea urchin, has increased in population, as have blue mussels.

The issue with the rising population of urchins is that they eat

kelp.

“There’s a decline in some kelp beds as a result,” says Jessica

Schultz, a Vancouver Aquarium invertebrate researcher.

Because kelp beds act as a nursery for many juvenile aquatic

species, this could also impact these juveniles by reducing cover

from predation.

“We are worried about how this will affect the juvenile prawns

found in shallower waters in the kelp beds,” says Schultz.

While there was a baby boom of sorts two years ago among

sea stars, the researcher admits, “we don’t know if they have survived.

The likelihood is that they have not made it.”

Last year the southern shores of Bowen Island were lined with

tiny dead sea stars on one particular day. Not a lot is known

about the wasting disease, though there is speculation that

warmer water may have been part of the problem. With limited

resources for scientific research even at the best of times in

Canada, the long-term study of things like sea stars has not been

a top priority. In the U.S. however, the situation was declared a

Marine Disease Emergency and a bill was drawn up to deal comprehensively

with such an emergency. As the number of animals

who have simply turned to mush continues to grow, the outbreak

of disease in natural populations of animals may be the biggest in

modern times.

While the invertebrate story is grim, news may be better when

it comes to forage fish. Schultz, who works with Jeff Marliave,

a well-known expert on Howe Sound rockfish, says they “are

noticing more forage fish like herring and anchovies which have

almost never been seen here before.”

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