• Graham R. Daborn

Managing the Commons of the Gulf of Maine/Bay of Fundy in a Changing World

Managing the Commons of the Gulf of Maine/Bay of Fundy in a Changing World


The Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine constitute biologically rich, diverse, and internationally important coastal ecosystems that are continuously changing as a result of both human actions and natural, long term processes. For centuries, these ecosystems and their watershed have provided critical resources to a residential human population that now totals more than 10 million. More recently, exploitation of other resources such as aquaculture and marine renewable energy has begun or is being considered. The high biological productivity of the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy system has supported numerous species, some of which are now rare or endangered, including many that migrate vast distances to the region. Through these migrants, the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine are biologically connected to the whole of the Atlantic, to the Arctic, and to Europe. Human activities, however, increasingly threaten the integrity of these ecosystems.

Natural ecosystems obviously do not adhere to political boundaries. These waters are shared between Canada and the USA, and between three states and two provinces. Demand for increased services related to aquaculture, energy, and tourism, and concern for endangered species and habitats, engender new conflicts with existing resource use and users. In addition, the continuing natural changes in these ecosystems together with changes in climate and global trade mean that the objectives for management and conservation are increasingly unclear. These factors represent significant challenges for the governance of the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy (hereafter FGM). Experiments in community-based management have increased public understanding of issues, but have generally failed to lead to effective decision-making or to resolve conflicts. What is clearly needed is a renewed effort at public engagement and regulatory action to avoid a new “tragedy of the commons” in these ecosystems.


Human activities increasingly threaten the integrity of productive coastal ecosystems such as FGM. For example:

  • Overexploitation has led to significant declines in some fish species (such as cod, halibut and haddock);

  • Shoreline development has resulted in loss of wetlands and reduced the resilience of the natural coastal ecosystem to respond to storms or to sea level rise;

  • River dams for hydroelectricity or transportation have changed the patterns of freshwater and sediment input into the system; and

  • Land-based pollution[1] continues to undermine the quality of waters in the Bay and the Gulf.

The biological connectedness of the FGM itself requires that management and conservation of the living resources must recognise a broader stewardship context than the economic interests of just those that live in the watershed.

The Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment, established in 1989, provides a potential mechanism for shared information exchange and decision-making. It has no regulatory authority, but achieves some influence on environmental and resource decisions by facilitating public awareness and being closely linked to regulatory authorities at federal, state, and provincial levels. Management of existing fisheries is the responsibility of the two federal governments and/or the states and provinces, and licensing and quota assignment practices often differ on each side of the international boundary, even when they involve trans-boundary stocks[2]. In spite of policy statements to the contrary, an ecosystem basis for decision-making is largely absent. The management of fisheries, for example, is commonly species-specific rather than ecosystem-based. Consequently, management of the common resources of the FGM at the present time might best be described as a melange of policies and actions that are conceptually appropriate, but often narrowly focussed, short-sighted, and inconsistent.

Changes in climate and global trade represent significant challenges for governance of the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy. Demand for increased services related to aquaculture, energy, and tourism, and concern for endangered species and habitats engenders new potential conflicts with existing resource use and users. Garrett Hardin pointed out almost 40 years ago[3], that exploiters of common resources on public land (and sea) act primarily in their own self-interest unless there are strong incentives to respect a higher societal or community interest. In the absence of a strong vision for management of the ecosystem as a whole, and a community-supported regulatory agency with real decision-making power, the prospects for the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy to become yet another example of the “tragedy of the commons” are indeed high. Experiments in community-based management such as the Atlantic Coastal Action Program (ACAP) have attempted to increase the awareness and involvement of local communities in management of the coastal environment, but real progress has been slow.

The Tragedy of the Commons Concept

Garrett Hardin's seminal 1968 article outlined an important dynamic that operates where separate exploiters target a common resource: an individual resource user's best interests are favoured by taking a larger fraction of the resource relative to other competing resource users. Hardin's analogy was with the common grazing lands shared by members of a local community. Each cattle herder would derive the full benefit of every additional animal in his own herd, while the potential costs (e.g. of overgrazing or disease) would be shared by the whole community. If every herder follows the same policy, the potential exists for overgrazing to destroy the resource itself. This inequity of cost and benefit can only be countered through establishment of a protective policy that places the best interests of society above that of individual interests. Otherwise, as Hardin states: "Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all." (Ironically, Hardin's solution is an economic one: privatization of the commons).

Hardin makes it very clear that the oceans represent such a commons. Unlike a well-defined grazing land, however, the renewable resources of interest to people (e.g. fish) include species that move freely between different regions and ecosystems. Consequently, the human community that has an interest in the sustainable use of any resource extends well beyond the local community of fishers[4]. Hardin's primary focus in the article dealt with the implications of the growth of the human population on the Earth. Increasingly, the rising demand for food is being met from ocean food resources, especially aquaculture[5], because land-based production has become inadequate: there is limited land space, much of it degraded by overexploitation or climate changes, and technical achievements aimed at increasing production (e.g. fertilizers, pesticides, and genetic modification) have not really provided sufficient rates of increase to match the increased human population. As Hardin points out, there may be no technical solution to the problem.[6]

For a long time, it was thought that the oceans were inexhaustible. One only had to develop larger vessels and nets and travel further to increase the effective size of the resource. The reality is quite the contrary. With few exceptions, the open oceans have very low productivity and the vast majority of available fish resources are in the coastal zone, where they have been exploited for centuries. Consequently, the coastal zone requires consideration as a limited commons.

Changing Ecosystems

A fundamental reality that is often unrecognized is that the Fundy and Gulf of Maine ecosystems are continuously changing. Tidal range, for example, has been increasing steadily over the last 4,000 years as a result of sea level rise, post-glacial changes in land level, and shoreline and sea-bottom erosion. On top of this are the many changes wrought by human action both in the coastal sea and the watershed: salt marsh conversion; damming of tributaries and estuaries; deforestation; nutrient, sediment and contaminant inputs; overfishing; aggregate removal; and harbour construction, for example. It is now apparent that even the cool, tidally mixed waters of the FGM system are not invulnerable to global warming.

Temperature records show that the mean temperature of the Gulf of Maine has increased by about 0.2°C over the last 30 years as a result of changes in the atmospheric jet stream and shifts in the movement of the Gulf Stream. Although lobster stocks have increased exponentially in the Bay of Fundy and Eastern Gulf of Maine since the 1990s, they have recently collapsed south of Cape Cod. It appears that the distributions of several species are shifting north as coastal waters become warmer. The prospects for some cold-water species, such as cod, halibut and haddock, do not seem very positive. Recent political moves in the United States to undermine environmental monitoring programs, withdraw from the Paris Accord, and lift restrictions on coal use, could enhance acid precipitation in the Gulf watershed, accelerating ocean acidification and damaging freshwater fish habitats. Against this changing background, how can one forecast the future of the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy, manage its resources wisely, and conserve its richness?

It is a common perception that established resource uses such as fisheries must take priority over new enterprises that may use the same space or otherwise interfere with existing practice. Indeed, the responses of local fishers to proposals for new activities in the coastal zone — such as aquaculture, establishment of marine protected areas or reserves, harbour modification or energy development — is generally to protest and campaign to prevent any such development. The holding of a license to exploit one resource is interpreted as individual ownership of part of the commons.

This antagonistic relationship continues to complicate decision-making in coastal zone management. Fragmentation of governance responsibility between federal and provincial/state levels, and between departments of government (e.g. environment, fisheries or resource development agencies) has impeded the development of coastal zone management plans. This is in spite of the fact that Canadian policy statements[7] commonly refer to basic principles to facilitate decision-making (sustainable development, integrated management and the precautionary approach) and emphasize the importance of involving the “community.”[8] At present, there is no over-arching vision for management of the FGM that could provide a sound and recognized framework for decision-making in cases of perceived conflict.

Apart from government policies and actions, a critical element is the awareness and support of the community that lives near and depends upon the resources of the coastal commons. Most fishers are not immune to the best interests of the community in which they live. After all, to benefit from a fishery resource, the community needs other resources: energy to keep warm, cook, and run fish processing plants; funds to maintain harbour facilities; aggregate for community roads or harbours. Nonetheless, when there are challenges to continued exploitation of a resource as a result of environmental changes or new resource exploitation proposals, the general reaction is negative and fragmented. Even the fisheries sector itself is comprised of numerous fishermen's groups representing those using a particular technique (e.g. fixed gear, mobile gear, seiners, weir fishers, etc.), fishing in a specific area, or pursuing an individual species (e.g. scallop, lobster). Not only is their response to change uncoordinated, they are frequently antagonistic to one another[9].

Quo Vadis?

Policy statements in the USA and Canada commonly refer to comprehensive ocean planning and community engagement. In Canada, the Atlantic Coastal Action Program[10] was initiated in 1991 to explore ways to empower communities to contribute to decision-making in the management of their coastal environment. These groups, and other NGOs such as the Bay of Fundy Ecosystem Partnership (BoFEP)[11], and the Gulf of Maine Institute (GOMI), have assisted government and quasi-government organizations such as the Gulf of Maine Council to raise the levels of public awareness of the state of the environment and the issues facing the ecosystem. They do not appear, however, to have made much difference to the fundamental underlying dynamic of competitive behaviour between individual and sector interests.

What is clearly needed is an expansion of the present educational initiatives such as GOMI's experiential education program, better dissemination of existing information, and a broad, regular (i.e. annual) forum in which these individual interests can be discussed in the context of both community economic development and the changes to be expected in resources as the environment changes in the future. The Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment is clearly well positioned to sponsor such a forum. It would hopefully lead to better coordination of policies between the various governments involved in the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine ecosystems, and ultimately, perhaps, avoid the FGM system becoming another example of the “tragedy of the commons.”

[1] In addition to nutrients and contaminants, a proposal in the United States for returning to the burning of coal for electricity raises the spectre of increasing acid rain that has caused problems in the past for some poorly-buffered waters in the Gulf of Maine watershed, and may accelerate ocean acidification in the Gulf.

[2] Also referred to as 'straddling stocks'. Several bi-national committees serve to facilitate coordination for management of specific stocks.

[3] Hardin, G. 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science Vol. 162: 1243-1248.

[4] Hardin also points out that the oceans represent a "negative commons" in that they have become used for "the commonization of a negative cost" such as pollution. Contaminants may have been generated by people living a long way away from the ocean who do not directly bear the costs of releasing their wastes.

[5]cf. FAO The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2014 http://www.fao.org/3/a-i3720e.pdf

[6] An exception might be made for aquaculture, in which higher productivity can be achieved by nutrient additions, exclusion of predators, genetic modifications, etc., but has often led to competition for space or concerns over disease affecting wild stocks.

[7]e.g. Oceans Act 1997; Canada's Ocean Strategy 2002.

[8] In the USA, on the other hand, the Northeast Ocean Management Plan (2016) seems) seems to have been pursued more effectively. See: http://neoceanplanning.org/

[9] An excellent summary of some of the issues is to be found in: Percy, J. A. 2001 Managing Fundy's Fisheries: Who should write the Rules? Fundy Issues #20, Bay of Fundy Ecosystem Partnership.

[10] See: http://www.publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2008/ec/En1-42-2007E.pdf; Also: Robinson, G.M 1997. Environment and Community: Canada's Atlantic Coastal Action Program (ACAP). London Journal of Canadian Studies Vol. 13: 121-137.

[11] see: http://www.bofep.org/wpbofep/

Graham Daborn is Professor Emeritus at Acadia University. He received his BA in English and Biology from the University of Keele (UK), and MSC and PhD degrees in Zoology from the University of Alberta. He was Professor of Biology at Acadia from 1973 to 2004, the Founding Director of the Acadia Centre for Estuarine Research (1984-2004), and Founding Director of the Arthur Irving Academy for the Environment (2004-2007). At Acadia, he taught courses in ecology, limnology, estuarine biology, and introductory biology. His research has dealt with the ecology of the Bay of Fundy with particular respect to the environmental implications of tidal power. He has been a member of the Experts Committee on Marine Renewable Energy for the International Energy Agency, a volunteer member of the Environmental Monitoring Advisory Committee (EMAC) for the Fundy Ocean Research Centre (FORCE) since its establishment in 2009, and a member of the Research Advisory Committee for the Offshore Energy Research Association (OERA).

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