Atlantic Canada covers New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and their surrounding waters. The rich coastal and offshore regions form an important part of life and work for Atlantic Canadians, and especially for Mi’kmaq, Wolastoqiyik, Innu and Inuit peoples, the area’s original inhabitants.

Coastal Communities

The temperate North Atlantic Ocean that surrounds the Atlantic provinces is a mixing zone of waters and peoples. These productive waters historically sustained Indigenous communities along with large quantities of fish, marine mammals, and other resources, which in turn attracted settlers and traders. Today, the ocean continues to form an important part of coastal economies and cultures, from fisheries and shipping to recreational use.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) is responsible for managing Atlantic Canada’s offshore areas and fish populations. The federal department has four main regional offices: Quebec, Gulf, Maritimes and Newfoundland. The provinces are responsible for regulating fish once it arrives at the dock.

For the most part, Indigenous peoples’ land claims in Atlantic Canada have not been settled and their traditional territory remains unceded. Additionally, in the oceans and rivers, Indigenous people have aboriginal and treaty rights to fish, both for food, social and ceremonial purposes and to support a moderate livelihood. Some communities have obtained commercial fisheries licences through the federal government system.

Sea Changes

The Atlantic coast and the surrounding waters have been heavily exploited by industrial fishing and development.

Historical overfishing has reduced numerous fish populations to extremely low levels, while high-impact fishing gear has resulted in high levels of bycatch and damage to marine ecosystems. Offshore oil and gas poses threats through exploratory activities and from the risk of spills. The Atlantic coast is also home to many important shipping lanes: these vessels generate underwater noise, which can put stress on marine mammals and other species, and collisions with ships have sometimes caused the death of whales—including the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

Climate change is driving negative effects in the Atlantic Ocean as well. For example, changes in the time that sea ice melts and forms have affected the marine food web, decreasing overall productivity, and warming waters have reduced the amount of kelp, which provides important fish habitat. It is also likely exacerbating the slow recovery of many fish populations. The waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence are losing oxygen and warming faster than almost anywhere else on planet. Meanwhile, rising acidification will negatively affect shell-forming species, which may impact fisheries, aquaculture, and the marine food web.

A Sustainable Future

Oceans North works with community partners in an attempt to rebuild fisheries and to conserve areas of biological and cultural importance so that they will continue to meet the needs of future generations and increase ecological resilience amid a changing ocean.

We work directly with the fishing industry, coastal communities, Indigenous groups, resource users, and research institutions in addition to national, provincial and regional government representatives. Oceans North is represented on numerous fisheries advisory committees throughout Atlantic Canada, where we advocate for science-based decisions that will lead to healthy fish populations and marine ecosystems. Additionally, we assist with rebuilding plans that help chart a way forward from collapse to abundance.

We support the rights of inshore Atlantic fishers and Indigenous communities and believe that sustainable, independent fisheries are important for healthy communities and a healthy ocean. As part of our work, we help enable scientific research and community monitoring of the Atlantic marine environment.

In 2019, following advocacy from Oceans North and many other organizations, the federal government passed legislation that modernized the Fisheries Act—Canada’s oldest piece of legislation—and updated the Oceans Act. Both of these laws have ramifications for marine conservation in Atlantic Canada and beyond. Oceans North will continue to work with government and other partners as the legislation is implemented.

Related Resources

Atlantic Canada Public Opinion Study

Oceans North, the Conservation Council of New Brunswick and the New Brunswick chapter of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society were interested in better understanding how Atlantic Canadians (residents of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island) perceive the state of the oceans. This report contains the results of polling that was conducted over the summer of 2019. The survey was supported by The Ocean Foundation.

Atlantic Canada Environmental DNA Workshop Report

This report details the outcomes of the first Atlantic Canada Environmental DNA Workshop, held at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and hosted by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Nova Scotia Salmon Association and Oceans North. It includes recommendations for future work, summaries of the presentations given and a map of past, current and future research projects involving environmental DNA in Atlantic Canada.