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The Department of Fisheries and Oceans appears to have sunk a controversial plan to send a decommissioned warship to the bottom of Howe Sound to create a diving attraction.

In a letter to the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia, the DFO said the proposed site, in Halkett Bay at Gambier Island, 20 kilometres north of Vancouver, is unacceptable because the wreck of the HMCS Annapolis would "cover and destroy" valuable fish habitat.

The DFO has referred the proposal to a screening under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, although the department said it is unlikely an acceptable site can be found anywhere in Howe Sound.

Members of the Save Halkett Bay Campaign, who've been fighting the plan, are thrilled with the letter, which the group obtained along with internal e-mails, after filing a request to the DFO for public documents.

"We were very happy to read that letter," said Andrew Strang, a spokesman for the group. "I don't know what better news you could get for a preliminary assessment when DFO is saying this project is going to cause environmental damage and recommends that it should be relocated."

The Artificial Reef Society, which has already sent several former destroyers and an old Boeing 737 to the ocean floor around Vancouver Island, is seeking permission to sink the 113-metre, decommissioned Canadian navy submarine destroyer.

The group strips wrecks of materials that cause pollution, then sinks them in locations where they can serve as diving attractions while creating artificial reefs for fish.

But the plan for the Annapolis ran into trouble from the start when Gambier Island residents objected, saying Halkett Bay is a marine park with high fish values.

In a December letter to the Artificial Reef Society, Bruce Clark, a biologist with the DFO's oceans, habitat and enhancement division, opposed the proposal.

"The marine environment of Howe Sound, including the vicinity of the proposed project site at Halkett Bay, is productive and sensitive fish habitat," wrote Mr. Clark, noting that salmon, steelhead, trout, surf smelt, Dungeness crab and other species use the area.

Mr. Clark stated that most of Howe Sound is characterized by steep, bedrock slopes, while Halkett Bay is a relatively uncommon shallow area.

"Your project would cover and destroy approximately 1,470 square metres of shallow near shore, fine sediment seabed."

Mr. Clark said creating an artificial reef "would not compensate for the loss" of the rich, natural habitat.

In an internal e-mail, Steve Gotch, team leader in the DFO's habitat protection division, said that "there are no suitable sites within Howe Sound," for the wreck.

In another note, Corino Salomi, DFO area manager, tells Mr. Gotch: "The habitat under the vessel will be completely eliminated so the level of impact is high. … Nevertheless DFO definitely has in the past, and definitely could, consider authorizing [it]… if justification was provided."

But in a Feb. 12 memo to Mr. Gotch, Mr. Clark reiterated his concerns, stating: "The project would result in significant harmful alteration, disruption, and destruction of fish habitat - without suitable justification or appropriate compensation. The project has the potential to adversely affect species of concern, including rockfish species and SARA-listed humpback whale and Stellar sea lion."

Officials with the Artificial Reef Society could not be reached for comment.

The group initially hoped to have the Annapolis on the seabed in 2009, then revised the plan, hoping to sink the ship this May.