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Confronting coastal challenges

- August 5, 2014

Marine Affairs Program (MAP) members (L-R) Selicia Douglas, Jessica MacIntosh and Mike Reid. (Bruce Bottomley photo)
Marine Affairs Program (MAP) members (L-R) Selicia Douglas, Jessica MacIntosh and Mike Reid. (Bruce Bottomley photo)

When they say there’s a lot happening on Canada’s East Coast, they aren’t kidding: across Nova Scotia’s 13,000 km of coastline you’ll find 13 distinct ecosystems, ranging from rocky shorelines to sand dunes to tidal marshes.

This means an abundance of learning opportunities for students in Dal’s Marine Affairs Program (MAP), a graduate program in the Faculty of Science. Mike Reid, who graduated with a Master of Marine Management degree in 2012, along with two other MAP alumni, Selicia Douglas and Jessica MacIntosh just spent several months compiling resources about Nova Scotia’s coasts as part of a project for the provincial government.

“We put together a really interesting collection of examples of literature for stakeholders… homeowners, business owners and so forth,” says Reid, who also currently works as the Coastal Research Network Coordinator with MAP. The materials include pamphlets and online resources that cover a variety of topics — for example, helping landowners address coastal erosion.

This research project and three others so far in 2014 — all exploring specific issues in coastal development — demonstrate the important relationship MAP has with the Government of Nova Scotia, according to Lucia Fanning, professor and prior director of MAP.

The Coastal Research Network Secretariat, for example, was established at MAP in 2009 as a consequence of a promise in the 2008 Speech from the Speech from the Throne that Nova Scotia would develop a coastal strategy. From 2009 to 2012, MAP was integral to helping identify and define Nova Scotia’s  coastal zone and issues confronting the coast, including sea-level rise in an era of climate change.

But changes in government meant that a proper coastal strategy was never finalized.

“The draft strategy was sent to the Premier’s Office and there it stayed — and understandably so,” says Dr. Fanning, noting that a provincial election loomed.

“If you look at who was in government since 2008 on, we actually have all three political parties forming governments in Nova Scotia so this is really a non-partisan issue that each succeeding government is dealing with.”

The importance of coastal issues

Dr. Fanning is optimistic that the new provincial Liberal government is once again keen to draw on MAP’s expertise. “Clearly coastal issues in Nova Scotia are issues that are not going to go away. And so we were reminding the province that we’re here; we’re ready to take back up our role.”

Another recent research project that the province is interested in, led by Dr. Fanning, looked at the impact of the federal government’s decision in 2008 to divest many of its wharfs on the province’s working waterfronts.

“Some of them have moved from being really completely occupied with fishing to mixed-use activities,” notes Dr. Fanning. “What are the factors that would allow a particular, generally rural, Nova Scotian wharf to move from a single-use wharf to a mixed use wharf? Are there lessons that we could learn from those that have been successful?”

Like the reports on other specific coastal issues, the waterfront report is currently being reviewed by the provincial Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture. Fanning expects the information will eventually be made public.

Then there’s Coastbase.ca — maintained by Reid and developed with support from the province and eventually other levels of government — that allows any user to search for and contribute new information about resources, organizations, data sets or publications around coastal issues. It not only includes results from Nova Scotia but from other provinces, national resources and resources for coastal regions of the United States and Spain. Dr. Fanning also hopes other work that’s happened or is happening in the province — including a water strategy and a wetland strategy — has been informed by MAP research.

“Some of us argue that all of Nova Scotia is the coast,” she says. “Just because it’s not being done under the rubric of a coastal strategy doesn’t mean that people aren’t working really hard. “

Real-world opportunities for students

Dr. Fanning, who is currently on sabbatical, says working with the province has many benefits for MAP.

“We take outreach really, really seriously… ” she says, noting that it’s the third pillar of MAP’s mission, alongside teaching and research. “[It’s] contributing our expertise, and benefiting from expertise that we partner with, to enhance the quality of information that goes into decisions with regard to the coasts and oceans.”

“It also benefits us by having this real-life practical situation to expose our students to. Many of the graduate projects that the students focus on centre around Nova Scotia issues as a result.”

Fanning also credits MAP’s Coastal Research Network Secretariat for bringing a coastal municipality calling.  In 2012, MAP students worked with the District of the Municipality of Chester to identify its vulnerabilities due to climate change and sea level rise, and develop scenarios for possible action.

“I would suggest that the only reason we were on the radar was because of our work with the province,” says Dr. Fanning, who notes that students presented their conclusion to municipal politicians. “It exposes our students to real life things — getting them to present to decision-makers — but it also addresses our mandate: to share our knowledge, to use our expertise.”

That real life experience is invaluable for marine managers who will be advising decision makers in the ever-more-urgent context of climate change.  Dr. Fanning notes that sea level rise, more frequent storms and coastal erosion — though pressing and real — don't erase the many other demands that citizens, the business community and budget constraints press on politicians.

"It's not enough for us to say it's lack of political will," says Dr. Fanning, who draws on her own experience as a marine advisor within Environment Canada for equanimity. “It’s lack of political will because we haven't made the case well enough, and we haven't because scientists generally don't necessarily understand all of these other issues that decision makers are dealing with. This however is changing with a real recognition by both scientists and those in the policy realm to bridge the gap."


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