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Building Community Action in a Shared Treasure Under Threat: The Bay of Fundy-Gulf of Maine -Georges Bank System (FMG)

We are fortunate to live close to one of the most productive and biologically diverse coastal ecosystems in North America: the Bay of Fundy-Gulf of Maine-Georges Bank System (or FMG for short). Humans have relied upon the resources provided by the FMG, especially food, since the last ice age receded about 12,000 years ago, and the sea level rose. Since colonization by Europeans in the 17th century, the system has yielded more benefits than just food: e.g. harbours and routes for transportation, sands and gravels for construction, dilution of human wastes, tourist attractions, oil and gas sources for example, and — coming soon to a region near you — wind and/or tidal energy.


The FMG region is a significant environment not just to Canada and the United States, within whose jurisdictions it lies, but also to many other countries that are biologically connected by the migratory movements of fish, turtles, birds, and marine mammals. In fact the FMG is linked with almost the whole of the North and South Atlantic, much of South and Central America, Europe and the Arctic by these species. It is a treasure that we share, therefore, with millions of other people. That places those of us who are fortunate enough to live in the FMG region with the important role of stewards, so that our responsibility for its wise management includes being concerned for the well-being of people who live in far distant areas of the world.


But all is not well in Paradise. This treasure is under significant threat primarily as a result of human activities. Unless we change our ways, many of the benefits provided by the FMG system will not be available in future, and it is not clear if the changes will include new benefits to replace those that are lost[1]. Present generations need to think seriously about the future that they would like to see, and the steps that must be taken to achieve it.


Special features of the FMG system


The Bay of Fundy, Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank form a large complex coastal system that exhibits an array of habitats, including shallow banks, rocky shores (in most parts), deep water that is often stratified, and other waters that are strongly mixed by the world's highest tides. The whole system covers almost 248,000 km2. It receives water (and the many things that flow in the water) from a land-based watershed[2] that itself covers c. 180,000 km2, and that includes all of the state of Maine, and portions of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Quebec. (See Fig. 1).


Fig. 1. The Gulf of Maine-Bay of Fundy-Georges Bank system

Because of the many areas of shallow water that receive nutrients from the land, the system is highly biologically productive, especially the region of Georges Bank, which itself is one of the most important - and the most accessible - fisheries banks in the world. Rich stocks of finfish and shellfish have been the mainstay of human populations in the area for many hundreds of years and, together with forest resources and rich farmland, were among the major reasons for the early colonial settlement of the region. In the deeper parts of the Gulf of Maine and outer Bay of Fundy there are areas of exposed bedrock or gravel, often with deep channels that remain relatively cold all year because of the influx of water from the Labrador Sea. In contrast, in the inner parts of the Bay of Fundy, the shorelines are of sandstone rather than harder rocks such as granite or basalt; tides and waves erode soft sandstones, but the tides tend to trap these sediments in the Upper Bay, yielding vast areas of sand and/or mud that are exposed twice daily by the tides. These extensive mudflats and marshes provide habitat for a completely different array of species.


These diverse habitats are the foundation for the great biological diversity to be found in FMG: more than 3,400 species are known, of which 2/3 (>2,300) occur in the Bay of Fundy itself. Many of the mobile species migrate between the FMG and the Arctic, the rest of the Atlantic Ocean, Europe, and the eastern sides of the American continents on an annual basis.  Species like shad, salmon, smelt and sturgeon may spawn or breed in FMG and move elsewhere to feed and grow up. Others, like many whales, turtles, shorebirds, shearwaters, US stocks of shad and sturgeon may breed elsewhere and come to FMG in the non-breeding season to feed and grow. The region is thus biologically connected to a large part of the rest of the world. (See Fig. 2 for examples from the birds).



Present Threats to FMG


There are two types of existential threat to this extraordinary system. The most obvious and continuing threats are anthropogenic: overfishing, pollution, manipulation of freshwater input by irrigation and construction of dams[3] (etc.) in the watershed, population growth, shoreline reconstruction in support of industry, residential housing, forestry and farming practices (etc.) — and, of course, climate change[4]. The last stress involves: warming of fresh and marine waters[5]; acidification of marine waters from the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; increased rates of sea level rise, with associated storm surge and coastal erosion issues; changes in some of the most important ocean currents (e.g. Labrador Current, Gulf Stream); movement of fish and shellfish stocks to cooler waters further north; and increases in invasive species, especially from the south.


Attempts to manage the human impact on the FMG system depend on a coordinated approach to action that is a combination of decisions by governments, industries, non-government organisations (NGOs) and individuals. The government piece is complicated because it involves two federal, several state and provincial governments and many local municipalities. Mandates, objectives, responsibilities and effectiveness of these different agencies vary tremendously, and often are in conflict. Industries and NGOs each usually have somewhat distinct agendas of their own and they too are often incompatible with each other.


That leaves the vast majority of people who live within the system (i.e. you?) whose interests may align with some of the groups mentioned above, but who do not possess much individual power to influence change. Collectively, however, people do have a measure of influence on society's response to these challenges. We vote for those governments[6]. We join and support organizations that aim to resolve environmental and social issues. And, for a growing number of people, we examine our own individual contributions to global climate change, and some of us take serious steps to minimise it: supporting renewable energy initiatives; decreasing our spending on luxury or fashionable - but unnecessary - goods; supporting NGOs and government initiatives that aim to minimize human impacts on the environment, for example.


Another aspect of the problem is our inadequate knowledge of the environment itself. Ecosystems are complex. Only in recent years have government-supported scientists tried to develop comprehensive understanding of the way in which ecosystems work, so that we can forecast the effects of human activities (e.g. fish harvesting, pollution, dam construction etc.) by acquiring data and building ecosystem models that reflect reality. The scientific endeavours of  government, industry and NGO organizations are limited in scope partly because of the lack of economic and human resources, but also because scientific approaches are often too narrow: e.g. are species- or problem-specific rather than comprehensive and integrative. Government policies usually follow suit[7]. This is precisely where individual contributions are most needed. And that means you and me.


Community-based management


The concept of community-based management is that decisions about the management of environmental issues should reflect the interests of local communities rather than the perception obtained by remotely-placed governments alone. It also incorporates the idea that any action taken by a government body should be guided by the understanding of the local community, not imposed upon it.


It is increasingly apparent that one of our greatest failures until recently has been the lack of recognition and incorporation of local and traditional knowledge to expand and correct the information acquired by formal scientific organizations such as government departments, academic researchers, some industries, and NGOs. Local communities, whether of indigenous peoples or of fishers, usually have a wealth of information collected over generations and absorbed into their understanding of the natural environment. Decision-makers, however, commonly dismiss such knowledge as being merely self-interest, and tend to rely mostly on the recommendations of scientists and developers whose methods and knowledge tend, as indicated above, to be narrow and selective.


But things may be changing for the better. In Atlantic Canada, for example, Mi'kmaq communities have for decades been arguing for the adoption of 'two-eyed seeing'[8]: an integration of modern scientific knowledge with the knowledge acquired over centuries by the Mi’kmaq people of the region. Similarly, many fisher's groups have been compiling their knowledge for generations, and although that knowledge may not have been collected with the rigour of a standard scientific study, it has the validity of being derived by people who spend much of their time on the water, and have a major vested interest in understanding how natural ecosystems work. As a result, there appears to be a significant shift in the thinking of governments about the importance of integrating these different types of knowledge in environmental impact assessments. In Canada for example, the 2019 Impact Assessment Act requires extensive involvement of indigenous knowledge holders in any evaluation of any project under federal jurisdiction[9].


That brings us to the second existential threat (after climate change): the torrent of disinformation that currently dominates 'discussion' of environmental issues on the Web and on social media. It seems that, whenever a change in practice or policy is proposed, the subsequent discussion is overwhelmed by counter claims and statements by those who disagree with it. This is well illustrated by the well-funded campaigns against: the links between smoking and cancer; the ecological damage caused by pesticides such as DDT; the potential usefulness of genetically-modified food organisms; and, of course, the connection between burning of fossil fuels and global climate change[10]. Commonly, these statements are based either on misunderstanding of the science involved, or complete rejection of the science because the person's personal interests are threatened. Such contradictory — and often illogical — claims would have no great effect if the average member of the public could distinguish between good and bad science. Unfortunately, the understanding of science - and therefore the credibility of science itself -  is very low these days.  


A more effective way of learning, however, is by appropriate experience. Much has been made in recent years of the value of incorporating citizens into scientific studies, that is now known as Citizen Science. There are numerous examples of local groups, with a modest level of training, contributing to scientific endeavours. Without community volunteers, our knowledge of the natural world would be much less satisfactory. Consider, for example, the annual Christmas Bird Count, annual Breeding Bird surveys, numerous water quality monitoring programs, plant surveys, etc. These activities make a huge contribution to the level of understanding that we have about the natural environment. But it is not the only contribution such activities make. Perhaps the more important of the outcomes is the increase in understanding among ordinary people of the ways in which Nature works, and the scientific approaches that we take. People involved in such community-based studies learn to discriminate between trustworthy scientific statements and the patent nonsense that sometimes dominates social media. More than anything else, perhaps, this increased understanding is a fundamental benefit both to the individual involved and the society from which that person comes.


Coda


This brings us to my reason for writing this article: how can we deal with these two existential threats (climate change and disinformation campaigns) in the future? It seems that we have to rely on our younger generations to develop and adopt a greater ability to understand and evaluate the scientific information, and to discriminate disinformation from truth.


Inevitably, this indicates an imperative need for schools and school teachers to be more effective in training young people to discriminate between sound and 'junk' science. There are many teachers who are extremely good at that. At the same time, there are depressingly large numbers of people who have left or are leaving the education system with little ability to distinguish public or media statements that are valid from those that are completely bogus. But formal education practices are not enough by themselves. People generally learn more from practical experiences.  


This is where community-based actions on environmental systems is so important. In the FMG system community-based action in support of good science is found in numerous initiatives: e.g. various local naturalist groups; the Atlantic Coastal Action Projects in Canada; the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), etc. Many of these initiatives engage primarily with adults or university/college students. This is where the Gulf of Maine Institute's (GOMI) programme of engagement with students still in school in Canada and the United States is most important and valuable. This exposure to scientific practice and environmental issues occurs at the time when they are forming their own skills and interests[11]. As they grow they develop a much more comprehensive understanding of environmental, scientific and social issues and remedies.  The linkage between schools and teachers in both Canada and the USA reinforces our joint responsibility for managing this unique system that we share. The practical experience in collaborating with others on a technically challenging project that is in the interest of their whole community, is something that few formal school programs can achieve. Long may the projects directed by the Gulf of Maine Institute continue. We need them to.


And if you, the reader, are still in school, take advantage of any such group initiative that comes your way. You and your community will be all the better for it. Good luck.


 

[1]For example, many important species such as lobsters and halibut, are moving north in response to the warming of the water. Will they be replaced by equivalent species from further south?

[2] See the article "What is the Gulf of Maine Watershed?"

[3] See the article: "Of Fish and Dams"

[4] See the article : "Shifting Cues"

[5] Temperatures in the Gulf of Maine have been rising in the last decade faster than any other coastal water in North America.

[6] Winston Churchill once wrote: "No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried from time to time.”

[7] For example, most fisheries management, both at the national and international level, deal with single species, not communities of mixed species that interact with each other.

[8] I believe that the major proponent, if not the originator of this concept, is Elder Albert Marshall of Eskasoni, Nova Scotia.

[9] Recently (October 2023), however, at the request of two provinces with conservative governments that favour fewer restrictions on energy developments, the Supreme Court of Canada declared many parts of the Act unconstitutional. The issue is where federal and provincial rights lie. The outcome of this decision will no doubt take many months to appear.

[10] Oreskes, M. and E. M. Conway. 2010 Merchants of Doubt. Bloomsbury Publishing. USA

[11]  https://www.gulfofmaineinstitute.org/gomijournalsummer2023/why-experiential-education-matters


 

Graham R. Daborn Acadia Centre for Estuarine Research, Acadia University

Graham 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).


As a biologist with interests in estuarine and freshwaters, Graham has (co)written or (co)edited 8 books, and more than 230 journal articles, technical reports, and information bulletins. Since 1976 his research has focused on estuaries, particularly the Bay of Fundy. Studies of the Bay of Fundy ecosystem have included: tides and tidal rhythms, sediment dynamics, fish and fisheries, plankton, benthic ecology and the general environmental effects of tidal power. He contributed material for the two Strategic Environmental Assessments of Marine Renewable Energy in the Bay of Fundy, for the FORCE Information Centre in Parrsboro, and for an assessment of Potential Marine Representative Areas in the Bay of Fundy for Parks Canada.

 

Daborn was Chair or Co-Chair of the Research Management Committee, and theme leader for Policy and Governance research for the Canadian Water Network (2001 - 2012). 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 - now Marine Renewables Canada, or MRC). He currently serves as a member of a 5-person committee conducting a Regional Assessment of Offshore Wind Development in Nova Scotia under the Impact assessment Agency, Canada.

 

For his work with communities and public dissemination of scientific information about the Bay of Fundy, Daborn was awarded the Gulf of Maine Visionary Award in 1993 and the Outstanding Science Champion Award of the Discovery Centre in 2000.




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