Campus Ecosystems: How KPU ceramic artists created homes for threatened fish species

KPU students made sculptures as artificial habitat for at-risk populations of rockfish

Sculptures that double as habitats for rockfish were placed in Howe Sound throughout 2019. (Submitted)

Sculptures that double as habitats for rockfish were placed in Howe Sound throughout 2019. (Submitted)

There are 37 species of rockfish off British Columbia’s coast, and many of their populations have been in decline since a record low in the 1990s. 

Rockfish are found in rocky reef habitats, with a small home range and they rarely migrate once they settle. They can live for over 100 years and mature late, and the older the rockfish is, the larger and more viable offspring they produce. But that’s made the rockfish a great catch so they are easily overfished, despite the many conservation areas in B.C. 

Kwantlen Polytechnic University ceramics instructor Ying-Yueh Chuang was approached by the Vancouver Aquarium in late 2017 with an opportunity to form a partnership with Ocean Wise, a global conservation organization focused on restoring oceans. With limited funding, they were hoping for donated materials and suppliers. 

The Howe Sound Research and Conservation program commissioned the sculptures made by KPU and University of British Columbia students to function as an artificial reef for the rockfish in Howe Sound. Some sculptures were placed in publicly accessible areas, while others are in private areas for further research. 

“I told [them] that I could try to gather some students who were willing to volunteer and take this opportunity. So that’s what we did,” Chuang says. 

Into early 2018, KPU students met at the Vancouver Aquarium for lectures by experts about the rockfish species and the happenings in the ocean affecting them. By the summer, students had confirmed their designs and had until the end of the year to create them, although the sculptures weren’t put into the water until July 2019 due to a delay in permitting. Today, many of them can be found at Porteau Cove

The goal of the artificial habitats is to attract rockfish whose populations had decreased before the introduction of catch limits, though some argue that these limits are often ignored and rockfish species are still fished illegally.

The most recent rockfish abundance survey by Ocean Wise was done between August and October last year. They identified 14 different species of rockfish, ranging from newly settled young to decades-old rockfish.

The survey concluded that the main threat to rockfish along B.C.’s coast is bycatch, and that there may be a relation to reduced populations in some areas because of a lack of compliance with fishing regulations.

The survey recommends increasing compliance by “making resources visually available in GPS systems on board fishing vessels.” In Howe Sound, it suggested the “establishment of enforcement officers who are granted limited powers such as checking catch size and handing out fines for infringements.” More community awareness and education on rockfish is also suggested to be beneficial

Chuang says while fishing is a big threat to rockfish populations, habitat destruction may also be a contributing factor. 

“A lot of their habitat is destroyed by human activities. Oil, garbage, they swallow a lot of plastic materials,” she says.

Keeping the harmful effects of materials in mind, students made the sculptures out of clay and concrete and created smaller-scale habitats. Clay is the most recent fashion being used to restore habitats for marine life in our oceans because it can withstand the ocean environment without contributing harmful debris like microfibers and hydrocarbons to the water. 

While this particular rockfish project has concluded for Ocean Wise, it was a unique opportunity for KPU students and for Chuang, whose inspiration as an artist comes from nature, and she hopes another one presents itself in the future.

“If something like this [comes up] in the future, I’m going to ask the KPU alumni and new students if they would be interested,” she says. 

“[The project] was to encourage students to engage with the community. A lot of this is our future. We are a part of it in a big picture, everything is all related. To do a project like that, for me, I feel like I’m [giving] a little bit back to Mother Earth.”