Have you ever wondered what it might be like to go to an art gallery… underwater?

If so, you’ll be delightfully surprised to learn that this dream has become a reality in Howe Sound/Atl’ka7tsem/Txwnéwu7ts. In fact, if you’ve been diving at Porteau Cove Provincial Marine Park within the past year, you may have come across some new artistic additions to the park.

Two sculptures submerged at Porteau Cove Marine Provincial Park.

Why are they there you ask? Over a year ago, four sculptures were placed underwater at Porteau Cove as part of a project to evaluate the effectiveness of artificial reefs for attracting marine life.

More specifically we wanted to see if they would be a suitable tool for rockfish habitat restoration. However instead of making an artificial reef out of concrete blocks, car tires or a ship as you might typically see when diving on this type of artificial habitat, we also wanted to know if rockfish would use habitat specifically designed for their use. And finally, because this project involved public art, this provided us with another opportunity to see if artistic restoration projects could be used as a tool to connect people to ocean conservation.

Rockfish populations drastically declined in the 1990s primarily due to overfishing, and their numbers have not significantly increased since protections were put in place in the early 2000s. These long-living, slow-maturing fish are vulnerable to overfishing because of their small home ranges and the length of time to mature and produce young. Rockfish play an important role in the food chain, preying on smaller fish and invertebrates, and providing a food source for larger animals like lingcod and sea lions. The loss of one species can have catastrophic effects on the whole ecosystem, which is why it is important to protect these fish.

Through a series of workshops and meetings, ten artists from Kwantlen Polytechnic University and the University of British Columbia created nine unique sculptures that incorporated different characteristics of rockfish habitat: hiding areas, cracks and crevices to rest on, escape pathways from predators and even dividers to prevent territorial disputes. The only thing left was to put the sculptures in the ocean and wait to see what happened next.

The final nine sculptures used to create the artificial reefs.

It has been over a year since the sculptures were placed in Porteau Cove and so far we have recorded 41 different species on the reef. Animals like red rock crabs, scalyhead sculpins, red flabellinas and transparent tunicates. We’re even finding algae growing on the sculptures, which over time may provide more shelter and superficially alter the look of the sculptures themselves (an interesting side effect of living art). Although there have been no rockfish seen on this site yet, artificial reefs usually take many years to become established, so we are hopeful that with continued monitoring one day we may see rockfish living there.

A scalyhead sculpin pokes its head out of a tube. Photo by Amanda Weltman.

That’s not all though. If you’ve been doing the math, Porteau Cove only accounts for four of the nine sculptures, so where are the rest? Earlier this year before the pandemic shutdowns took place, we created a second reef at another location in Howe Sound with the remaining five sculptures. We recently went to survey the site to see what has “moved in” and to our delight the first animal spotted was a quillback rockfish resting on one of the sculptures! While more monitoring needs to be done over time, this is a positive sign indicating that rockfish may choose to use artistically designed reefs as habitat.

A quillback rockfish rests on an underwater sculpture as a scuba diver surveys a second sculpture in the background. Photo by Amanda Weltman.

Curious to see these sculptures with your own eyes? Want to contribute to the research monitoring the reef? If you’re a scuba diver you can submit a survey of your sightings from Porteau Cove as part of a citizen science project to track recruitment on the reef. Divers are also encouraged to get creative and take photos of the sculptures. This is living art after all, and who knows what will be found there next.

This project would not have been possible without financial support from Environment and Climate Change Canada, Lafarge Canada and Greenbarn Potters Supply Ltd.

A red rock crab found on a sculpture. Photo by Jeremy Heywood.

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