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Life Returns to Howe Sound​

by Curtis Gillespie

​The majesty of Howe Sound — a massive inlet that runs north and west of Vancouver — hits you square in the chest, whether you’re seeing it for the first time or the thousandth. When the sun shines on waterfalls spilling off the cliffs, and carries across the old-growth forest carpeting the shoreline, it feels like the entire planet is one glittering gemstone.
Howe Sound is also home to a teeming array of aquatic life, including myriad varieties of fish, squid, crab, mussels, plankton, as well as sea lions, seals, orcas, bluefin and humpback whales and dolphins.

Megan Sewell runs Sewell’s Marina in West Vancouver and she says the sheer awe is something you simply never get used to. Sewell’s great-grandfather, Dan Sewell, Sr., founded the marina in 1931, and it remains in the family to this day. “But, we didn’t see ocean life when I was a kid, like we do now,” she says.
​​That’s because for much of the last century, Howe Sound was being poisoned by runoff from the Britannia copper mine, which operated from 1904 to 1974. For a time, Britannia was one of the world’s biggest copper mines. Unfortunately, it also produced acid rock drainage, a toxic heavy metal mixture of zinc, copper, cadmium, iron and manganese, which was running into Howe Sound. And this did not stop once operations ceased. Rainwater and snow melt continued to pass through abandoned pits and tunnels, leaching the toxic combination back into the groundwater and ultimately the sound.​

Millions of salmon died every year and eventually the salmon run disappeared altogether. Dolphins stopped entering the sound. Seals disappeared. Orcas no longer summered and calved there. Thousands of species along the eco-chain were compromised.

​​​​​​Photo credit: Sewell’s Marina​​​

 This is where EPCOR saw an opportunity to make a difference. The company won a competition in 2004 and began to gather and treat the water that flowed through the site. Eric Taylor is Operations Manager for EPCOR at Britannia. “Part of the problem was just that there was so little environmental legislation around mining until the 1970s,” he explains. The Britannia mines were extensive and built with little environmental oversight, from the open pit mines to the multiple shafts that comprise over 200 km of total underground tunnel space.
EPCOR now annually treats 4.2 billion litres of runoff from the site and removes a quarter-of-a-million kilograms of contaminants. Now approaching the project’s 20th anniversary, EPCOR has kept five million kilograms of toxins out of the sound over that period.
It’s a story to be told from many angles, says Derek Jang, manager of Interpretive Delivery for the Britannia Mine Museum. The museum’s “Terra Lab” exhibit, which details this remarkable regeneration, has recently been extended to 2025. “EPCOR has been great to work with,” says Jang. “Museum programming is about revealing meanings, in this case, Britannia's mining history and the waters of the sound.”
A further sign of the rebirth of Howe Sound is that in 2021 it was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. UNESCO notes that Howe Sound — or Átl’ka7tsem (pronounced At-Kat-sum) in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) — supports “thousands of marine species, including living glass sponge reefs, which were long thought to have gone extinct 40 million years ago.”
“I think I started seeing big shifts around 2007 or 2008,” says Sewell. “We started to see Pacific white-sided dolphins in mega-pods. Then orcas. And then humpback whales started sticking around well through October. If you’d asked me twenty years ago what the chances were of seeing a humpback whale, I’d have said pretty slim.”
Derek Jang adds that only five years after the water treatment plant opened, salmon were seen spawning again in Britannia Creek. “Lately, we’ve been able to get amazing footage of sea lions hunting right outside the museum's grounds and of killer whales swimming by the area looking for food,” he says.
Sewell had a group out on the water last fall and stopped the boat next to a seal colony​. “I didn’t say a word to them,” she says. “Then a humpback surfaced right in front of us and did its big blow, three or four times, before it went back into its dive. A woman on the boat turned to me and said, ‘I think I’m going to cry.’ I put my arm out to show her that I was covered in goosebumps. It was so special to share that moment with someone who was so moved. ’I know,’ I said to her. ‘Me too.’”