At the end of September, the Nova Scotia Department of Environment and Climate Change circulated troubling changes to the Nova Scotia Wetland Conservation Policy (the “Policy”), specifically concerning Wetlands of Special Significance (WSS), to its staff. The changes were effective immediately.
In Nova Scotia, alteration of a wetland requires approval from the provincial Minister of Environment and Climate Change. Under the Policy, government will not support or approve alterations for wetlands that are designated as WSS, or that pose a substantial risk to WSS, except those required to maintain, restore, or enhance them, or those deemed to provide a necessary public function.
WSS designation will now only apply to wetlands known to support Threatened and Endangered species, and excludes species designated as “Vulnerable” under the provincial Endangered Species Act or “Special Concern” under the federal Species at Risk Act, and will now only apply to the portion of a wetland directly supporting Species at Risk (SAR) or to the portion of wetlands that overlap with protected areas (e.g., a Provincial Park). Additionally, the Department will no longer consider SAR occurrences in historic databases or previous applications when identifying and designating WSS. Finally, the scope of the necessary public function exception has been drastically expanded, and now includes housing, commercial/industrial, and renewables.
The changes were not announced publicly through government websites, social media, or other channels. In addition, there is no evidence that science, experts and communities were consulted before the clarifications were made.
The Ecology Action Centre, Nature Nova Scotia, East Coast Environmental Law, ACAP Cape Breton, Nature Canada, Birds Canada, Atlantic Salmon Federation, Coastal Action and PEI Watershed Alliance do not support these changes. The Policy has the goal of no loss in Wetlands of Special Significance. The changes will significantly reduce the protection of WSS provided by the Policy.
We are currently experiencing two global crises: biodiversity loss and climate change. Wetlands play a pivotal role in mitigating both. According to the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, 40% of all plant and animal species live and breed in wetlands. Wetlands also provide fundamental benefits to both humans and nature through their ability to capture large amounts of carbon, prevent floods and droughts, buffer wind and wave energy during storms, cool the surrounding air, and filter water. Wetlands protect people, homes and communities during extreme weather events such as hurricanes, wildfires and floods, all of which Nova Scotia has experienced in this last year alone.
If the Province is committed to preventing the loss of wetlands and the biodiversity that wetlands support, it should not be changing the Policy in ways that weaken wetland protections. A significant amount of wetlands around the world, including in Nova Scotia, have already been destroyed or degraded by human activities. Every wetland that still exists in Nova Scotia is even more valuable and important to protect.
In 2022, the Mersey Tobeatic Research Institute compiled recommendations for Nova Scotia’s Wetland Conservation Policy to strengthen the WSS and ensure it was meeting its obligations under the Policy. This work was partially funded by the Nova Scotia Department of Environment and Climate Change and assembled input from over a dozen wildlife and conservation experts. The report found that Nova Scotia’s WSS could be greatly improved by modestly expanding WSS criteria for crown land without significantly increasing the amount of protected wetlands. The report concluded by encouraging the Province “to continue prioritizing wetlands and developing additional protection policies. These added protections are even more important considering the warming global climate, which threatens wetlands in Nova Scotia from drought, and the global decline of biodiversity, including species at risk. More can and should be done to better improve the WSS and other wetland policies.” To date, none of the recommendations from the report have been incorporated.
Furthermore, last February, on World Wetlands Day, two workshops on wetland protection took place in Halifax Regional Municipality. Members of the general public, and professionals (e.g., academics, government staff, grassroots activists, ENGO representatives) whose work intersects with wetlands and wetland issues, gathered to discuss their hopes and visions for wetland management in Nova Scotia. As outlined in the What We Heard Report, it is clear that Nova Scotians are calling for stronger wetland protection.
As a province, we need better wetland protection to guard Nova Scotians and their property and support the wildlife we share our province with. Strong and resilient communities and economies will only exist if the natural environment is also strong and resilient. We can and must build our communities to support healthy and thriving natural environments, to ensure safe and affordable housing as well as long-term economic prosperity.
Wetlands and Water Coordinator | Ecology Action Centre