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Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, Dominic LeBlanc stands on a boat trailer while viewing environmental response equipment after an announcement at the Sea Island Canadian Coast Guard Base, in Richmond, B.C. Feb. 15.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

The federal government was expected to announce a 2,000-square-kilometre marine conservation area off the coast of British Columbia on Thursday – a measure that has already received mixed reaction from industry and environmentalists.

The creation of the conservation area will restrict fishing in three sites between Vancouver Island and the archipelago of Haida Gwaii to protect the region's sensitive glass-sponge reefs. The B.C. coast is believed to be one of the last remaining homes for glass-sponge reefs, which were once thought to be extinct.

Jim McIsaac of the Canadian Independent Fish Harvesters' Federation predicted the restrictions will hurt jobs and raise seafood prices.

"We've been sold down the road," Mr. McIsaac said Wednesday, calling the move both extreme and unnecessary.

Mr. McIsaac said the announcement will have a "cascading effect" that could hurt workers, including those who crew the more than 50 boats that fish in the area and those involved in processing the catch. The federation had proposed a plan to protect about 1,000 square kilometres of seabed but still allow fishing in the surrounding areas and in the water above the glass-sponge reefs, he said.

"From the fishing community's point of view, fishermen have been working on protecting sponge reefs for considerably longer than the seven years in the marine-protected-area process, Mr. McIsaac said.

Fishermen brought in a voluntary closing around the reefs in 2000 and endorsed an official closing under the Fisheries Act in 2002, he added.

Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc is scheduled to make the announcement in Vancouver alongside officials from the Canadian Coast Guard.

At an unrelated event on Wednesday, Mr. LeBlanc said it's possible to protect the marine ecosystem while also balancing the interests of industry.

"People should be careful before they pull the fire alarm and tell Canadians that, as the government meets the commitments that we made to Canadians, it will necessarily have these devastating economic impacts," Mr. LeBlanc said. "Obviously, that's not a view we have and we'll continue to work with the industry to make sure that's the case."

Glass-sponge reefs have been described by the environmental organization Living Oceans as fragile relics of prehistoric times. They were thought to have become extinct before their rediscovery in the late 1980s.

Sabine Jessen of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society welcomed the announcement. She said that scientists have been expressing their concerns about the continuation of bottom-contact fishing because sedimentation so close to the reefs can smother the glass sponges.

"Any fishing gear that drags along the bottom will stir up the bottom sediments," Ms. Jessen said in an interview.

Ms. Jessen disputed the argument that creating a protected area will hurt the industry. She said most commercial-fishing operations aren't seeing their quotas cut and they will be able to fish outside the area. She acknowledged that the prawn fishery will be affected but she described the impact as minor.

"Protecting the glass-sponge reefs will actually have a long-term benefit for commercial fisheries, because many of the species that they are fishing in that area rely on the sponge reefs for habitat, for places for juveniles of their species to hide and grow until they get larger and for there to be spillover outside," Ms. Jessen said.

"So, we really think that this is going to have a really long-term benefit for commercial fishing on our coast."

The Fisheries Minister said the federal government is committed to meeting its target of protecting five per cent of Canada's marine ecosystem by the end of the year, and 10 per cent by 2020.

With files from The Canadian Press

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