Low tide, and the beach is wide and clean, strewn with long rippled banners of kelp and mermaid’s necklaces of wrackweed, bearing hidden jewels of mussels, sea urchins and crabs. The shellfish are there…but where are the shorebirds to eat them?
A lone seagull stands sentinel down the beach. Signs proclaim that this is a piping plover nesting sanctuary; we are to keep off the stony dunes during nesting season, May and June., A passing ornithologist shares the news that only two pairs of piping plovers nested on this wide empty beach this season, down from six last season. She tells us sadly that one of the nests just failed — something, maybe a fox or a mink, got the eggs.
The shorebirds are not alone in their struggles here on the beautiful seaside peninsula of Nova Scotia. Where dozens of regal blue herons once stalked the marshes, it’s now rare to catch sight of even one. The osprey and bald eagles soldier on, but it takes them hours of patrolling to bring home a fish for their hatchlings. The fish populations are way down, affecting the entire food chain along the coast, from seals to dolphins to the bigger predator fish like halibut and swordfish.
Nova Scotia was built on fish. Nova Scotian cod used to supply the world, and alewife were so plentiful they were used as fertilizer. Old-timers here recall fishing in the coves along the coast being as easy as dropping in a line or a net…the fish were just teeming below the surface.
No more. These days the bays are home mostly to lobster, which seem to be getting more plentiful as the waters warm and the predators are reduced. Lobster fishing licenses are precious here, handed down from father to son, and hereditary fishing turf is jealously guarded. Lobster fishing is still lucrative, even though lobster often sells for less than chicken here.
The Cape LaHave, one of the last scallopers in Lunenburg, heads out to the Grand Banks for three weeks at a time, dragging the bottom for the scallops that will be packaged by Adams and Knickle in Lunenburg, and sold far and wide in frozen blocks. There are a few other rusty old trawlers sitting in the docks at Lunenburg…a struggling remnant of the once vibrant fishing industry.
In the Fisheries Museum, the story is told of how the cod fishery crashed back in the 1990s, and sometimes a lone cod swims sadly in a tank on display, a live illustration of a population hunted to the brink of extinction. More often, the tank is empty.
The people in the Canadian Maritimes are looking for other ways to make a living. St John, just across the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick, has been expanding its deepwater port, serving as a tanker depot for oil and gas shipped by rail and pipeline from as far away as Alberta and North Dakota. This is where the disputed gas pipeline that would run through Berkshire County would end up.
Meanwhile, Shell has just gotten the go-ahead from the Canadian environmental agency to drill for oil right off the coast of Nova Scotia. And salmon farming is big along the coast, too, despite the serious environmental risks: the fish cages are known to produce “dead zones” around them, and the fish themselves are often unhealthy and contaminated.
A recent walk at Gaff Point, a nature conserve in Lunenburg County, revealed few signs of life, other than some gulls and osprey following one of the scarce runs of fish, far out at sea. Up on the beach was an ominous sight: a magnificent black dolphin lying dead in the sand. It had no signs of laceration or damage; and it was strange that no birds were digging into its shiny hide, not even the lone crow who sat on a nearby rock eyeing the carcass dubiously. Could it have been poisoned? Were the birds smart enough not to eat its toxic meat?
The beauty of Nova Scotia is breathtaking. Compared to the highly developed Maine coast, it’s empty and unspoiled. But a closer look reveals a magnificent land and seascape struggling to retain its age-old biodiversity in the face of the relentless human onslaught. We humans are wise enough now to know when we are causing harm. We are capable of conserving and rehabilitating our coastlines, now that we no longer have the excuse of ignorance.
In my childhood, I remember walking happily along the beach with crowds of sandpipers keeping me company, nimbly chasing the sand fleas in and out of the waves. Now I am happy if I am able to see a lone piping plover running along the sand, gracing the beach with its clear high whistle. Will my grandchildren know a real live plover, outside of a photograph or a stuffed bird in a museum? That depends on the actions of our generation, you and me.
Restoring our environment is not rocket science, as the saying goes. We know what needs to be done. We just need to find the will to do it — to put long-term stability ahead of short-term profits. We need to start living for the benefit of the coming generations, basing our actions on a holistic vision of how human beings can fit harmoniously into the vast web of life. Here on Nova Scotia’s beautiful but decimated shores, there is no task that seems more urgent.