Do’s and Don’ts / Save Owl’s Head

Third essay for Nova Scotia Premier @IainTRankin and Minister of Environment and Climate Change @KeithIrvingNS on the issue of the government’s theft and illegal sale of Owl’s Head Provincial Park

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Many of us have watched “My Octopus Teacher”, a stunningly beautiful documentary of free diver and film maker Craig Foster and his encounters with a female octopus in the kelp forests off the eastern Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. The documentary was made as part of an effort to save and protect those kelp forests.

Outer, Middle and Borgel’s Islands along Nova Scotia’s eastern shore / Nick Hawkins, Canadian Geographic

Last summer I visited the most beautiful place on earth. I won’t tell you where it is, except that it’s right here in Nova Scotia, somewhere along our eastern shore. I will also tell you that it’s part of an island and that I went there in a kayak.

Like so many of the hundreds of islands along this coast, this one is uninhabited. It looks unremarkable on a map, just a roundish blob of rock with a small polyp-shaped bay on one side, connected to the surrounding sea by a narrow entrance. We sneaked through it – no other boat but a kayak would fit through there really. All of a sudden the stiff and cool wind that we experienced over the sea fell away, the temperature rose and the water was flat. Everything became calm. No sound but the wind in the marsh grasses surrounding us in this enclosure that’s maybe 100 m across. Beneath our boats, a magical world unveiled itself. The bottom was no more than 3 feet away. Crinkly seaweed curled around our paddles, tiny fish and shell fish scuttled across the bottom, pink tentacles of unknown plants floated below and twisted itself around myriads of other vegetation. The diversity of life in this tiny water body is astonishing and astonishingly beautiful. Almost nobody comes here; occasional kayakers have no place to land so they float around for a bit and leave, being forever enriched by a truly pristine environment.

Such coastal shallow marine ecosystems are hugely important for us humans. Kelp forests and Eelgrass meadows (Zostera marine) baffle waves, thus allowing sediment to settle, which in itself allows the eelgrass meadows to expand. Eelgrass meadows are nurseries for more than 25% of the world’s largest fisheries including Cod and Lobster. In other words, they are essential for our food security.

Shallow marine environments have been degraded by human intervention to disastrous extents. Along the Northeastern shores of North America, about ¾ of all eelgrass is gone – as a result of degraded water quality, caused by pollution that causes eutrophication (oversupply of nutrients, leading to a decline in species diversity and a rise in opportunistic single species), overfishing, massive sedimentation and disease. But while Nova Scotia’s shores, especially our Eastern shore, are still relatively undeveloped, warming oceans also pose a threat to these ecosystems. Nova Scotia has lost more than 90% of its kelp forests as a result of ocean warming alone. About 17 years ago I marveled (from my kayak) at the the kelp forest of Boyd’s Cove near Kejimkujik National Park. Apparently, that kelp forest has disappeared.

In a recent paper in the prestigious scientific journal Science, nearly two dozen Canadian scientists argued the need for increased Natural Climate Solutions in Canada. Why? Because mitigation efforts currently being implemented under the “PanCanadian framework of clean growth and climate change” will not be sufficient to achieve Canada’s goals under the – legally binding! – Paris accord. Reminder: as part of the Paris agreement, signed in the Fall of 2015, Canada commits to a 30% reduction of Greenhouse gases (GHG) by 2030.

Such mitigation measures require huge investments. But what these authors are saying is that even those investments won’t be enough to reach the goals that we are legally committed to. So we must do more. And we can do more – in part simply by doing less.

Natural systems absorb Carbon from the atmosphere because plants photosynthesize by breathing in CO2 and storing it in their tissues. This is called Carbon sequestration. Some ecosystems absorb more Carbon than others. Wetlands store significant amounts of Carbon so if we protect wetlands, we enable and enhance Carbon storage in natural systems (if you want to know more about this subject, Google “Blue Carbon”). It’s really that simple: don’t convert or destroy wetlands, do restore and protect wetlands. The protection, management and restoration of natural systems benefits so many: soil productivity is enhanced, water and air become cleaner, biodiversity and – consequentially – food security improves.

Implementing Natural Climate Solutions essentially means we’ll adhere to the Precautionary Principle, which the Canadian Government subscribes to: “The government’s actions to protect the environment and health are guided by the precautionary principle, which states that “where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

Fish stocks are in decline everywhere in the world. Overfishing and destruction of critical habitats such as nursing and feeding grounds are to blame, together with pollution from industry and agriculture. Our planet is warming rapidly and every bit of natural carbon storage must be protected and enhanced.

A flounder hides in shallow marine flora near Borgel’s Island / Nick Hawkins, Canadian Geographic

The authors of this article estimate that if Canada got serious about implementing Natural Climate solutions, it can provide nearly 79 Terragrams CO2/year of mitigation potential in 2030. How much is that? That is equivalent to the 2018 emissions from all of Canada’s heavy industry. If Canada implemented additional Natural Climate Solutions, we could exceed our current agreed contributions, thus improving living conditions for generations after us.

Significant eelgrass meadows occur off Owl’s Head Provincial Park. This factor alone was part of the reason the Federal Government proposed the area for a Marine Protected Area (MPA). That designation hasn’t come through yet, but it would provide an opportunity to protect both a fragile coastal headland (Owl’s Head Provincial Park) and its adjacent shallow marine area. But… in 2019 Nova Scotia’s Land and Forestry minister Iain Rankin secretly sold Owl’s Head Provincial Park, designated 44 years ago, to a foreign billionaire who wants to develop it into a gated elitist golf resort. In order to create such an artificial environment, the headland would be blasted to bits and massive amounts of sediment would end up being dumped off the headland, killing the eelgrass meadows. In addition, the nearshore would be at huge risk of golf ball pollution.

The scientific evidence is clear: don’t do anything that risks damaging highly productive shallow marine environments because they provide us with Natural Climate Solutions and critical elements of food security which we badly need.

Undo the theft. Give us back Owl’s Head.

Literature

Drever, C.R., S.C. Cook-Patton, F. Akhter, P.H. Badious, G.L. Chmura, S.J. Davidson, R.L. Desjardins, A. Dyk, J.E. Fargione, M. Fellows, B. Filewod, M. Hessing-Lewis, S. Jayasundara, W.S. Keeton, T. Kroeger, T.J. Lark, E. Le, S.M. Leavitt, M-E LeClerc, T.C. Lemprière, J. Metsaranta, B. McConkey, E. Neilson, G.P. St-Laurent, D. Puric-Mladenovic, S Rodrigue, R.Y. Soolanayakanahally, S.A. Spawn, M. Strack, C. Smyth, N. Thevathasan, M. Voicu, C.A. Williams, P.B. Woodbury, D.E. Worth, Z. Xu, S. Yeo and W.A. Kurz, 2021, Natural climate solutions for Canada, Science Advances, v. 7, no 23, eabd6034. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abd6034

Hawkins, N, 2016, Nova Scotia’s Wild Islands. Canadian Geographic, Feb 19.

Reynolds, L.K., M. Waycott, K.J. McGlathery and R.J. Orth, 2016, Ecosystem services returned through eelgrass restoration. Restoration ecology, v. 24, no. 5, p. 583-588. https://doi.org/10.1111/rec.12360

Chiasson, M.D., 2020, Meet the super-plant from Nova Scotia’s shorelines: Eelgrass. The Coast, Feb 27.

About earth science society

I am an earth scientist. Understanding earth is essential for the well-being of our global society. Earth is fascinating, science is fascinating and a better understanding of both can help society forward. This blog attempts to make a contribution to raising awareness of these issues.
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