The north and eastern shores of New Brunswick stretch for nearly 1,700 kilometres from the Restigouche River at the Québec border to Baie Verte at the Nova Scotia border. A plane ride up the coast offers a dramatic view of the most distinguishing features of this coastline. It is low lying, with a string of barrier islands, dunes and reefs stretching from CapeTormentine to the Bay of Chaleur and it has sand, lots of sand.
These sands are as characteristic and influential in defining the nature of the north and eastern coasts of New Brunswick as are the tides in the Bay of Fundy. Like the dynamic and powerful tides of Fundy, the movement of sand shapes coastlines and determines the distribution of habitat and species. Just as changes to the natural flow of tides can have dramatic ecological impacts, altering the flow of sand can also have ecological consequences.
Over the past one hundred years, more than the sands have shifted on the northern and eastern coasts of New Brunswick. The ecology and the economy of the region have shifted as well. It is tempting to think of these shifts as natural – the result of changes in technology or climate, increases in the scales of economies, changes in market demand, periodic fluctuations in wild populations, or the rise of globalization. Perhaps this is true for some industries or ecosystems. However, there is nothing natural about the incremental and systematic contamination and destruction of wild fish stocks and coastal habitat.
Mining operations, pulp and paper mills and other industries have contaminated rivers, estuaries and bays. Salt marshes have been filled in for residential, cottage and business development. Ecologically sensitive areas have been proposed for conversion to golf courses. Channel mouths, gullies and bays have been dredged to make way for boat harbours and marine service centres. And in 2007, a task force on self-sufficiency recommended the province undertake a massive expansion of the shellfish, primarily oyster, aquaculture industry in the bays and estuaries of the north and east coast.
For more than a decade, citizens and community-based organizations have been doing their part to raise awareness of contamination and coastal issues and to monitor and restore habitats. All too often, however, they find themselves powerless to act when the legislation regulating certain activities is inadequate or not enforced, or when there is no legislation protecting certain habitats.
Ten years ago, the Conservation Council marked the1998 International Year of the Oceans by initiating a comprehensive review of the issues facing the coastal ecosystems of New Brunswick’s north and eastern coasts. The product of that investigation was a 144-page report, Shifting Sands: State of the Coast in Northern and Eastern New Brunswick. Since then, the Conservation Council has produced several more reports and numerous recommendations for reversing and restoring the coastal ecosystems of New Brunswick’s north and eastern coast.
An epidemic of development continues to sweep over our coastal areas and it is threatening economic and ecological foundations. How much more stress can our coastal resources sustain? This is impossible to predict, but the symptoms tell us the patient is critically ill. There are no artificial life-support systems for this patient. There are no technological substitutes for the functions performed by salt marshes, eelgrass beds, dunes, tidal estuaries, oyster reefs, barrier beaches and islands. Only swift and immediate action will put this patient on the road to recovery.