Art Meets Rockfish Conservation in Undersea Installation in Howe Sound

Vancouver, B.C. – Yesterday, Ocean Wise Research installed an unusual artificial reef in the waters of Howe Sound: sculptures designed by local art students to function as habitat for threatened rockfish. Howe Sound contains 11 designated rockfish conservation areas, and 14 rockfish species live there.

The Howe Sound Research and Conservation program commissioned the sculptures to function as an artificial reef for the fish. Created by students at Kwantlen Polytechnic University and UBC out of clay and concrete, there are nine sculptures in total, four of which were delivered on Thursday by barge to Porteau Cove provincial park, and then lowered in place with the help of commercial divers. The sculptures were designed to “recruit” rockfish, whose population had decreased drastically before the introduction of catch limits and management actions in 1986, and has not yet rebounded.

“Rockfish are homebodies,” said Amanda Weltman, a field research and data assistant, who took on the project two years ago when she started working with HSRC. “We want to see whether this artificial habitat will attract rockfish and encourage them to stay in the area. Despite the fact that some species are threatened, rockfish are often illegally fished. Since they mature late, we’d like to see whether providing them with habitat specifically designed for them in a place where fishing is banned allows them to live longer, achieve maturity and reproduce in greater numbers.”

Weltman said taking an artistic approach rather than simply installing cinder blocks on the ocean floor was a way of engaging the public with the subject of rockfish conservation.

“We hope that over the months and years, these sculptures will increase biodiversity.”

Installed in a spot that’s popular with scuba divers and already features artificial reefs, the sculptures are also meant to encourage citizen science. Divers are invited to explore the waters around the sculptures and report their observations on numbers, types and behaviours of fish online to researchers. (Some scuba divers already participate in the annual Rockfish Abundance Survey conducted by Ocean Wise®.)

The process to submerge the sculptures took most of the day yesterday. Mercury Transport provided the barge that lifted the sculptures by crane and lowered them to the ocean floor. Professional divers from Can-Dive Construction ensured they were positioned properly and then unhooked the cable attached to each sculpture.

Environment and Climate Change Canada provided a grant for this project, Greenbarn Potters Supply helped with the clay, and Lafarge Canada supplied the concrete, but the student artists donated their time. Weltman found them by contacting art professors at Vancouver universities. Kwantlen ceramics teacher Ying-Yueh Chuang expressed interest in presenting the opportunity to her students as a potential out-of-classroom challenge, and eight of them decided to work on the project, along with one student at UBC and a mentor from Emily Carr.

Weltman met the students early in the process and told them that each sculpture could be no more than 1-3 metres tall, could have no moving parts, had to be environmentally friendly, negatively buoyant, and needed to have plenty of hiding places for the rockfish, which can be territorial. It also needed to be able to be replicated, in case a particular sculpture does help increase the rockfish population and HSRC wants to repeat the experiment elsewhere.

The students approached the challenge in a highly imaginative way, one choosing to create coral-like structures spread out horizontally; another creating a home that looked like a heap of calla lilies stacked on their sides, and a third creating a clay structure using a 3-D printer. HSRC will monitor them all to see which the rockfish find coziest.

Weltman also invited the students to the Vancouver Aquarium to attend workshops in which they learned about conservation, seafood sustainability, plastic pollution and other topics pertaining to the health and habits of rockfish, including details about their lifespan: some species can live to be 100 years old.

The remaining five sculptures – including an inuksuk — will be submerged at a later date in waters off private land that won’t be accessible to recreational divers. Their use by rockfish will be monitored by HSRC.

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Deana Lancaster, Communications Manager │ Ocean Wise
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