by NatureNS Executive Director, Becky Parker
“Canada’s Ocean Playground” has a problem. Our coastline is increasingly developed into private vacation homes and tourism attractions, while local access, traditional use, and wildlife habitat are pushed to the side. Nova Scotia has 13,000 km of coastline and sea levels are expected to rise at least 1 m over the next 80 years. Over 70% of Nova Scotia’s population lives in coastal communities, but we aren’t alone. We share these unforgiving seascapes with an increasingly threatened biodiversity, including species like the quintessential Piping Plover.
Shorebirds face a number of threats on our beaches and many of them are related to human development; habitat loss resulting directly from coastal development, increased predation due to human garbage attracting raccoons and foxes, and breeding season disturbance due to off-leash dogs are just a few of the stressors keeping many shorebird species from recovering their pre-colonization numbers. The 2019 State of Canada’s Birds report estimates a national historic loss of 40-60% of our shorebirds, overall, and the most recent federal Piping Plover Status Report estimates a decline in this species of at least 13% since the 1990s, and 23% over just the last 10 years (approximately 3 generations).
Over a third of the global Piping Plover population breeds in Canada. When the first Status Report was released, Piping Plovers no longer nested on Sable Island, on islands in the Bay of Fundy, or along Chaleur Bay in Quebec, and their breeding range on the Great Lakes was restricted to Long Point on Lake Erie. By 2001, Piping Plovers had been extirpated as a breeding population from the North Shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Canadian side of the Great Lakes, and Northeast Newfoundland. There were also fewer breeding sites in the Canadian prairies than there were in 1990, and populations dropped to extremely low levels in Ontario and Manitoba.
Human disturbance reduces Piping Plover productivity in several ways, both directly through the destruction of nests and eggs, and indirectly through the birds’ behaviour. Even well-intentioned people and dogs with good recall can flush birds from their nests and increase vigilance behaviour by the plovers, reducing time spent feeding, tending eggs, or raising chicks. Birds that are flushed from their shelter are also more vulnerable to other threats like bad weather, predation (of themselves or their eggs), and off-road vehicles. These are issues on Plover beaches across Nova Scotia.
The latest Plover beach to experience a major threatening event, though, is Cherry Hill Beach in Lunenburg county. A developer owning property on Henry Conrad Road plans to create a new RV park adjacent to the beach, attracting more tourists, predator-luring garbage, and beach-venturing dogs to the area. The particular area of the Municipality the beach is located in has no zoning regulations, so there is no opportunity for the locals or larger public to sound their concerns for coastal integrity or wildlife habitat and prevent the destructive development.
How is this possible, after Nova Scotia just weathered the strongest hurricane in Canada history and only two years after passing new coastal legislation designed to protect these places from poor planning decisions like ocean-side RV parks?
In April 2019, the province passed the Coastal Protection Act, attempting to clarify rules around coastal activities and sort out when various jurisdictions responsible for them should get involved. It aims to address development and related activity along the coast and mitigate the risk from sea level rise, storm surge, and coastal flooding, while also addressing erosion in sensitive coastal ecosystems that provide invaluable ecological functions. The Coastal Protection Act regulations will set out site-specific horizontal and vertical setbacks that dictate how close private property owners can build to the coast. But the act does not address setbacks for the septic systems and wells associated with those developments, which some worry could dampen the legislations’ ability to safeguard our shorelines from climate change. It doesn’t delve into habitat-specific considerations for wildlife, which may require setbacks of their own, and it’s important to note that mobile homes are not currently covered by the Act’s regulations.
The Act is also not yet in force. The province is still working on regulations that will detail how the legislation operates on the ground. Even when the Act and its regulations do come into effect, though, much of the responsibility for coastal protection will fall with the Municipality.
Nova Scotia is mandating a Minimum Planning Standards within the next two years, where municipalities will be required to provide a plan detailing their own coastal protection measures. So zoning will come to the Cherry Hill Beach area as part of Lunenburgs’ MODL 2040 project. But this does little to protect coasts, people, and shorebirds threatened by large and sudden developments right now.
This isn’t just a Lunenburg issue, either. Hunt’s Point in Queen’s county made the news last year when concerned citizens sounded the alarm on a similarly outdated coastal development. Nancy Anningson, then coastal adaptation senior coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, suggested that the controversy was representative of a broader pattern across Nova Scotia, as the pandemic building boom and delays in legislation have intensified a rush to develop the coast. “It’s disappointing, because as soon as people found [the Coastal Protection Act] wasn’t in force now, stuff started popping up that should not be happening. Until that act comes into force and we can effectively enforce it, people are putting themselves at risk, developers are putting people at risk, and people are making some terribly risky decisions.”
Still, some municipalities are taking proactive measures.
Queen’s Municipality has since passed new bylaws requiring 100-foot horizontal setbacks from the shore. “There are a few lots that are too small for anything, and with the new bylaws, they won’t be able to build on. And we had a few complaints about that. But we’re trying to protect the coastline,” said Deputy Mayor Kevin Muise speaking to CBC News. Though not specifically meant to protect species like the Piping Plover, it’s easy to see how smart decision making for human welfare can also benefit our rarest wildlife.
It’s 2022. We know that climate change will continue to threaten and, in some cases, dramatically change our coasts. It’s time we acted like we have known about this risk for over 50 years.
The plovers, and our coastal communities, depend on it.
You Can Help
- Sign the petition organized by locals trying to halt the development
- Write to councilors in the Lunenburg area and Lunenburg West MLA Becky Druhan and tell them it’s time to get up to date on coastal protections, for people and plovers.
- Write to your provincial or federal representative and ask them what they’re doing to support municipalities tackling climate change adaptation for the first time.
- Or go one step further and take our Plover Pledge: send us a selfie being a good beach steward (staying on the wet sand, keeping dogs on leash, and keeping a good distance from feeding shorebirds) and we’ll send you our Shorebird Steward sticker badge. Submit your photo to our online form.
Leitha Haysom, District 1.
Carolyn Bolivar-Getson, Mayor
email@example.com Phone: (902) 685-2416
Becky Druhan, MLA
firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: (902)-530-5449
Rick Perkins, MP
email@example.com Phone: (902)-527-5655
Tim Houston, Premier
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: (902)-424-6600
Tim Halman, Minister of Environment and Climate Change
Photo by NatureNS and Nova Scotia Bird Society board member, Jason Dain