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Regional Oceans Plan - Scotian Shelf, Atlantic Coast, Bay of Fundy
Background and Program Description

Regional Oceans Plan - Scotian Shelf, Atlantic Coast, Bay of Fundy, Background and Program Description

Regional Oceans Plan - Scotian Shelf, Atlantic Coast, Bay of Fundy, Background and Program Description (PDF, 3.07 MB)

Table of Contents

Regional Overview

This section describes the ecological, social, economic and jurisdictional contexts for oceans and coastal management and marine conservation planning in the Maritimes Region. Key management issues and trends are also highlighted, including interactions between human activities and the marine environment, and conflicts between human activities. Governance mechanisms that have been developed to help address the conflicts, manage impacts, and respond to related issues are referenced. Information presented here on the natural environment, human activities, and the key issues related to them has been drawn from a number of overview documents listed in the Integrated Oceans Management Program Documents section (Annex 1).

Ecological Context

This Scotian Shelf-Bay of Fundy bioregion to which this Plan applies is approximately 476,000 km². It is a productive and diverse ecosystem, providing food and shelter for a variety of species ranging from microscopic plankton to the largest whales. Physical habitats are similarly diverse, with a variety of coastal habitats, offshore banks and basins, steep slopes and underwater canyons, and the largely unknown abyssal plain. For the purposes of this Plan, the Scotian Shelf-Bay of Fundy bioregion has been divided into three planning areas – the Offshore Scotian Shelf, the Atlantic Coast and the Bay of Fundy – which are briefly described below.

The Atlantic Coast

The Atlantic Coast planning area includes the area from the high water mark to the 12-nautical mile limit of the Territorial Sea, extending from Cape North, Cape Breton, into the Bay of Fundy (Figure 1). The Atlantic Coast has a variety of shoreline habitats, such as rocky shores and headlands, large bays and inlets, estuaries, salt marshes, and sandy and rocky beaches. Information on the Atlantic Coast planning area is patchy, with some areas studied extensively and others not at all. Several recent DFO studies have focused on identifying areas of ecological significance. Threats to coastal ecosystems are often linked to land based sources of pollution, including effluent from wastewater treatment and runoff from coastal development, forestry and agriculture.

Another threat is the loss of habitat from residential, industrial and commercial development. It is estimated that 70% of the population in Nova Scotia lives within a coastal community.

Eelgrass Decline

Eelgrass is an important component of the coastal ecosystem found along the Atlantic Coast in sheltered bays and coastal waters. The most commonly occurring species in the inshore region is Zostera marinus. Eelgrass beds rank among the most highly productive ecosystems in the world. Eelgrass beds provide important nursery habitat for fish and invertebrates by providing protection from predators, substrate for attachment of invertebrates and other algae, and an abundant supply of food. Eelgrass is also an important food source for birds and other species. Ducks and geese feed extensively on intertidal eelgrass beds during the winter. Eelgrass decay provides a food source for species such as shrimps, amphipods, crabs, filter feeding bivalves and polychaetes. Eelgrass beds on the Atlantic Coast have been declining in recent decades due to coastal development, eutrophication and invasive green crabs. Although there is limited information for the entire coast, some locations reported declines of 30% to 90%.

The Offshore Scotian Shelf

Moving seaward from the coast, the Offshore Scotian Shelf planning area is defined as the waters from the 12-nautical mile limit of the Territorial Sea to the 200-mile limit of the Exclusive Economic Zone. The planning area includes Georges Bank and offshore portions of the Gulf of Maine (see Figure 2 for location of undersea features).

The Scotian Shelf is considered an underwater extension of Nova Scotia’s coast. It is separated from Georges Bank in the southwest by the Northeast Channel and from the Newfoundland Shelf in the northeast by the Laurentian Channel. The edge of the Scotian Shelf and Georges Bank are indented by deep submarine canyons. The shelf edge, where the seafloor begins to fall steeply away, lies at about 200 metres depth. The Scotian Shelf slope and rise (the area from the edge of the continental shelf seaward to the abyssal plain) and the portions of the abyssal plain within Canada’s Exclusive Economic Zone also form part of the Offshore Scotian Shelf planning area. The planning area is highly productive and has supported fisheries for hundreds of years. Whales and seabirds feed in offshore waters, and countless invertebrates add to the biodiversity of the area.

Figure 3: Underwater Features of the Scotian Shelf-Bay of Fundy Bioregion. Figure 3 is a map of the area covered by the Regional Oceans Plan with a number of underwater features labelled including things such as the major banks, channels, canyons and basins.
Figure 3: Underwater Features of the Scotian Shelf-Bay of Fundy Bioregion

Figure 3 is a map of the area covered by the Regional Oceans Plan with a number of underwater features labelled including things such as the major banks, channels, canyons and basins.

Georges Bank

Georges Bank is located in the offshore waters between southwest Nova Scotia and Cape Cod, Massachusetts. The international maritime boundary between Canada and the United States crosses Georges Bank, dividing the bank between the two countries. The Canadian portion accounts for less than 50% of its total area. Georges Bank is a shallow bank with approximately 50% of its area being shallower than 60 m (200 ft). It is a highly productive ecosystem with high levels of fish biomass and a diversity of other marine species. In addition to providing habitat for resident species, it is also an important over-wintering and staging destination for many migratory species during their southward and northward movements. It is the northern limit for many warm water species and the southern limit for many cold water species. Georges Bank is known around the globe as a significant fishing area. It is perhaps best known as one of the world’s most productive areas for sea scallops and represents some of the fastest observed growth rates for sea scallop stocks. Georges Bank also has significant petroleum resource potential. However, the bank has been subject to an oil and gas moratorium since 1988.

The Bay of Fundy

The Bay of Fundy is a narrow, funnel-shaped body of water, over 270 km long and 60 km wide at its widest point. It is known for its extreme tidal ranges.

The inner bay and outer bay have somewhat different characteristics, with the inner bay having the most extreme tidal ranges and extensive mudflats at low tide. Productivity in the area is exceptionally high and likely greatest at the mouth of the bay due to tidal mixing. Many different species take advantage of this productivity, including endangered North Atlantic right whales that feed on abundant copepods in the area during the summer and fall. An area in the Bay of Fundy near Grand Manan Island has been identified as critical habitat for this whale. The Bay of Fundy was Canada’s most popular nomination for the new Seven Wonders of the Natural World competition.

Socio-economic Context

The Atlantic Coast, the Offshore Scotian Shelf, and the Bay of Fundy support a diverse array of marine activities, including commercial fishing, shipping, oil and gas, aquaculture, telecommunications, defence and and research. Many of these activities are directly dependent on the marine ecosystem. Economic benefits from ocean activities are reported by province, rather than marine region, making it difficult to identify economic benefits from specific ocean areas. However, it is clear that the ocean industries conducted in the Scotian Shelf-Bay of Fundy bioregion make significant economic contributions to the Gross Domestic Products (GDPs) of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (Figures 5 and 6). One of the aims of the Plan is to foster economically prosperous maritime sectors and communities by supporting marine activities carried out in a sustainable manner. As well, the Plan promotes communication between different industry sectors, particularly in cases of existing or potential conflict.

Climate Change

Climate change is a cross-cutting issue that will affect the natural environment of the bioregion from coastal regions to the offshore. These changes could in turn have profound impacts on many marine sectors, particularly those that rely on living resources. Climate change may result in different species becoming commercially important in fisheries or aquaculture. For example, fish species not currently common in our waters, such as bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix) and black sea bass (Centropristis striata) may become commercially important. Species currently commercially important may decline in abundance. Changes in water chemistry may result in shellfish having weaker shells or spending more energy to develop shells.

A changing climate may also lead to changes in the suite of invasive species that live in our waters, or make our area more susceptible to invasive species and their impacts. Some marine plants and animals may become more stressed and thus more vulnerable to non-direct impacts from human activities. Adapting to a changing climate is something all management sectors will have to face in the coming years.


Commercial fishing occurs in most areas for a variety of species. Three major species groups are fished commercially in the bioregion: groundfish (e.g., cod, haddock, pollock, redfish, flatfishes); pelagic fish (e.g., herring, swordfish, sharks, tuna); and shellfish (e.g., snow crab, lobster, scallop, shrimp).

The Bay of Fundy, Georges Bank and the western Scotian Shelf support important fisheries for scallop, lobster and groundfish. Lobster is important in coastal areas throughout the bioregion. The area from Digby to Shelburne supports the most productive lobster fishery in the country. The cool waters of the eastern Scotian Shelf support important crab, clam and shrimp fisheries.

Fisheries for swordfish and tuna occur in the deeper waters of the shelf edge and slope during the summer months.

The fishing industry has responded to much change over the last twenty-five years. The formerly dominant groundfish fisheries now occur mostly on the western

Scotian Shelf and in the Gulf of Maine. Across the bioregion, new species are being exploited and existing fisheries for many species of shellfish have expanded. Fish harvesters are increasingly sharing the offshore with oil and gas activities and coastal areas with aquaculture operations. Climate change is also expected to affect fisheries. In addition, fisheries management has changed, attempting to incorporate ecosystem considerations in managing fisheries, such as impacts on habitat and other species.


Commercial shipping in the area is generally in the form of tankers, and general bulk and containerized cargo carries. Halifax, Port Hawkesbury and Saint John are the largest ports in the region. Servicing the cruise ship industry also provides important economic benefits to the region. The main ports of call for cruise ships are Halifax, Sydney and Saint John. Overall, maritime transport in Nova Scotia generates about $500 million annually in GDP, while in New Brunswick annual GDP is estimated at about $100 million. International agreements and national legislation controlling pollution from ships have long been in place, while ballast water management measures continue to evolve in accordance with international agreements and guidelines. The overall amount of noise in the marine environment, of which shipping is a major contributor, is a concern for some species, particularly whales. Recently, a federal risk assessment for marine oil spills identified several areas with relatively higher risks in the bioregion, including Saint John Harbour and the outer Bay of Fundy, and Chedabucto Bay and the adjacent eastern shore of Nova Scotia and Cape Breton.

Oil and Gas

Oil and gas exploration in the bioregion occurs mainly in the Offshore Scotian Shelf planning area around Sable Island. There are currently two offshore energy projects in production: Sable Offshore Energy and Deep Panuke. Sable Offshore has been producing natural gas since 1999 and has a total project life expectancy of about 25 years. It has been a significant source of revenues for the Province of Nova Scotia, which received $900 million from the project in 2008. Deep Panuke started natural gas production in the fall of 2013. A long-standing moratorium on oil and gas exploration exists for Georges Bank. After a brief lull in activities, there has been a recent resurgence in interest in exploring for oil, with much of this interest being directed to deep water areas off the Scotian Shelf. Shell and British Petroleum have recently made significant investments in deep water exploration license bidding processes. The corresponding increase in exploration activities, including seismic surveys and exploratory wells, requires effective coordination and communication among the oil and gas industry, regulators and other ocean use sectors. While a significant amount of research has been carried out on the impacts of oil and gas activities, more work is required in this area. Key risks associated with offshore hydrocarbon development include potential noise impacts on marine animals, disruption to fisheries, and pollutant discharges and oil spills.

Shipping Analysis for Better Decision Making

DFO works with other government partners to help monitor shipping- related activities and manage or mitigate associated environmental pressures. For example, various mapping projects have been completed and are underway to assess patterns and trends in vessel traffic, ballast water exchange, and vessel-sourced pollution (for example, see Figure 4). DFO also regularly contributes shipping- related information and expertise in support of decisions with respect to environmental assessments (e.g., vessel traffic patterns in relation to proposed marine terminals), marine protected area and species at risk management (e.g., endangered North Atlantic right whale Critical Habitat designation), and other marine zoning processes (e.g., ballast water exchange zone designation).

Figure 4: Vessel traffic densities in the Northwest Atlantic. Figure 4 is a map of the east coast of North America showing areas of greatest marine vessel traffic extending along the coast, into the St Lawrence River and across the Atlantic.

Figure 4: Vessel traffic densities in the Northwest Atlantic

Figure 4 is a map of the east coast of North America showing areas of greatest marine vessel traffic extending along the coast, into the St Lawrence River and across the Atlantic.

This map was created by counting the number of vessel tracklines within each 2 minute grid cell using 12 months (March 2010–February 2011) of Long Range Identification and Tracking

Renewable Energy

The Bay of Fundy planning area has been the focus of efforts to harness renewable tidal energy. There is currently one tidal power station in the bay. Seven locations have been identified as potential sites for tidal in-stream turbines on the Nova Scotia side of the bay, while eight sites have been identified on the New Brunswick side. In-stream technology remains at testing stage. Other parts of the bioregion have been identified as having high potential for wind and wave energy. As interest in this sector increases, it will be important to coordinate between this and other sectors, and to consider the environmental impacts of any renewable energy developments.


Aquaculture in the Scotian Shelf-Bay of Fundy bioregion occurs in the Atlantic Coast and Bay of Fundy planning areas. New Brunswick has the largest aquaculture industry in eastern Canada and the second largest in Canada. The main species produced in the bioregion are Atlantic salmon and blue mussels, with most of the value coming from salmon farming. Additional farmed species include rainbow trout, American oyster, bay quahog and Arctic char. The total value of the aquaculture industry in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in 2012 was about $244 million. The Plan will support DFO’s efforts to promote intergovernmental cooperation and planning and stakeholder involvement in aquaculture.


Most marine tourism activities occur in coastal areas of the bioregion. Sport fishing, boat tours, whale watching, kayaking, diving, surfing and beach visits are all aspects of the tourism industry that depend on the region’s marine and coastal environments. Cruise ship tourism is described in the shipping section above, with expenditures by passengers and crew captured under the “Tourism” category of Figures 5 and 6. Cruise ship expenditures were estimated at $20-$30 million in the early 2000s; however, with increased cruise ship visits in the 2010s, current expenditures are likely to be higher.

Tourism in the Gully and on Sable Island

When the Gully was first established as an Oceans Act MPA, it was considered to be so far offshore that tourism was a minor consideration in its management plan. But the establishment itself has brought increased interest to the area, and there have been requests by eco-tourism operators to visit the area. The establishment of nearby Sable Island as a National Park Reserve by Parks Canada is also likely to increase tourism interest. Parks Canada and DFO will work together to make sure increased visitors do not negatively impact the ecosystem of these important habitats.

Land-based activities

Land-based activities, ranging from electrical generation to manufacturing to municipal wastewater systems to agricultural activities, have an impact on water, sediment and air quality of the marine environment. Distant sources of pollution affect the Scotian Shelf due to transport from the St. Lawrence River and Gulf of St. Lawrence and deposition from the atmosphere. In fact, pollution from local sources is considered to be a less important source of contaminants on the Scotian Shelf than distant sources. While pollution, eutrophication and hypoxia are mostly a concern in coastal waters, particular oceanographic conditions or activities occurring in certain areas of the offshore may require attention.

Marine debris, often from land-based sources, are an entanglement and ingestion threat for many species. Micro-plastics, which are minute particles of plastic that are easily ingested by marine life, are of increasing concern.

Jurisdictional Context

Federal, provincial and municipal governments all have a role to play in the management of marine and coastal environments. The Scotian Shelf-Bay of Fundy bioregion is shared by the Provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, each with multiple municipal governments established within them. The southern extent of the bioregion is delimited by the maritime boundary with the United States in the Gulf of Maine and the French Exclusive Economic Zone for St. Pierre et Miquelon also extends into the eastern bioregion. Within each of these levels of government, numerous departments and agencies are in place to oversee applicable oceans and coastal policy and legislation.

Jurisdictional authorities for the various levels of government in Canada are assigned in the Constitution Act, 1982. Section 35 of the Constitution Act also recognizes and affirms the existing Aboriginal and treaty rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada. DFO, as a representative of the Crown, seeks to carry out its mandate in a manner that is consistent with the constitutional protection provided to Aboriginal and treaty rights and decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Sparrow and subsequent decisions. In Nova Scotia, DFO consults First Nations through various means including the Mi’kmaq-Nova Scotia-Canada Terms of Reference for a Consultation Process under the Assembly of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Chiefs. Similarly, in New Brunswick, DFO consults First Nations through various means including the Mi’gmag, Wolastoqiyik, New Brunswick, and Canada Interim Consultation Protocol under the Assembly of New Brunswick First Nations’ Chiefs. DFO consults with First Nations when departmental management decisions have the potential to affect First Nations communities, but also more broadly to share information and views with respect to matters that affect aquatic resources and oceans management. DFO also engages other Aboriginal

Organizations in these processes including, the Native Council of Nova Scotia, Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources, Maritime Aboriginal Peoples Council, and Atlantic Policy Congress of First Nations Chiefs. These engagements may include the collection and consideration of traditional knowledge in departmental assessments, planning and management.

DFO participates on intergovernmental bodies with other federal departments, such as Environment Canada, Transport Canada, Natural Resources Canada and Parks Canada, as well as numerous provincial departments from Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The primary oceans-related governance structure for the bioregion is the Maritimes Provinces Regional Committee for Coastal and Ocean Management. Within the Gulf of Maine, DFO participates on the Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment and in a transboundary fisheries assessment and management process for stocks shared with the United States. Given this complexity of jurisdictions, a collaborative approach is required to work toward common priorities under the existing authorities and utilize resources most effectively.

Nova Scotia oceans sector GDP impact, 2006 ($ millions)

Figure 5: Economic Impact by Ocean Sector (2006) in Nova Scotia (Gardner, M., MacAskill, G., and DeBow, C. 2009. Figure 5 is a bar graph of the GDP impact (direct and spinoff) of various marine sectors in Nova Scotia including sectors such as aquaculture, tourism, fishing, National Defence.
Figure 5: Economic Impact by Ocean Sector (2006) in Nova Scotia (Gardner, M., MacAskill, G., and DeBow, C. 2009.

Figure 5 is a bar graph of the GDP impact (direct and spinoff) of various marine sectors in Nova Scotia including sectors such as aquaculture, tourism, fishing, National Defence.

Economic Impact of the Nova Scotia Ocean Sector 2002-2006. Prepared for Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Nova Scotia Government. 27 pp + appx.)

New Brunswick oceans sector GDP impact, 2008 ($ millions)

Figure 6: Economic Impact by Ocean Sector (2008) for New Brunswick (Gardner, M., and MacAskill, G. 2010. Figure 6 is a bar graph of the GDP impact (direct and spinoff) of various marine sectors in New Brunswick including sectors such as ship building, tourism and recreation and the sea food industry.
Figure 6: Economic Impact by Ocean Sector (2008) for New Brunswick (Gardner, M., and MacAskill, G. 2010.

Figure 6 is a bar graph of the GDP impact (direct and spinoff) of various marine sectors in New Brunswick including sectors such as ship building, tourism and recreation and the sea food industry.

Economic impact of the New Brunswick ocean sector 2003-2008. Gardner-Pinfold Consulting Economists Ltd., Halifax, Nova Scotia). Seafood industry category includes fishing and processing; values are for Bay of Fundy and Gulf of St. Lawrence.

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