A big problem for Little Harbour

In picturesque Little Harbour, Nova Scotia, the livelihoods and pastimes of residents are inextricably linked to the water. More than 650 permanent and seasonal homes, along with six commercial shellfish harvesting areas, lie along Little Harbour’s 31.5 kilometres of shoreline.

But the beauty and prosperity of the area is being undermined by water contamination levels in the harbor, which have been on the rise for some years. The main contaminant is fecal coliform—the bacteria found in feces, and one that can accumulate in shellfish tissue. The presence of fecal coliform and the disease-causing pathogens it can contain has had an impact on both recreational and aquaculture sites around Little Harbour — two of Little Harbour’s six shellfish-growing areas are under restrictions that require costly additional steps to ensure the product is safe for consumption.

It’s believed two factors are to blame for the degradation of Little Harbour’s water — more houses that rely on residential septic fields are being built in the area, and precipitation patterns that are changing. The combination has increased the number of land-based contaminants being flushed into the water.

In August of 2016, Nova Scotia Community College’s Applied Geomatics Research Group partnered with AquaDelights Seafood Inc. and the Aquaculture Association of Nova Scotia to investigate the sources and circulation patterns of the bacterial contamination.

They began by modelling water circulation patterns; results showed that many bacteria particles released into Little Harbour were transported only a few meters from their points of origin. They also discovered the changing tide left low concentrations of contaminates settling along the shorelines and increasing the mean fecal coliform count.

The work included a spatial and statistical analysis of 25 years of water quality data and gathered integrated underwater mapping data and aerial photographs of Little Harbour.

Once the work was completed, the information was shared with the community to influence future actions and encourage remediation of sources of contamination. Most Little Harbour residents were aware of the environmental impact of septic runoff in general, but many believed the tide cycle carried contaminants out to sea, and only learned that was not true from this project. As a result, this research stimulated interest in remediating sources of contamination, and increased local understanding that deteriorating water quality is a hindrance to both environmental and economic health.

Since the conclusion of NSCC’s research in November 2016, the community of Little Harbour has formed the Community Watershed Management Group to spearhead necessary changes and improve water quality in the area.

“The Little Harbour water monitoring project is an important first step in understanding and communicating the need to work with coastal communities to provide the research that will pave the way forward for a brighter future,” said Tom Smith, executive director of the Aquaculture Association of Nova Scotia.

Funded by: College and Community Innovation Program, Engage Grant, NSERC

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