A cruise ship enters the Halifax Harbour in the distance.

Thus far, in a series of posts, I have chosen to use this space to describe a project that my graduate class with the Marine Affairs Program at Dalhousie University has undertaken to set up a long term data collection project monitoring marine pollution around the Halifax Harbour. In the first post, I introduced some background information on the city, and the basics of the project. More recently, the second article had two distinct points of focus: The first, the story of marine pollution more broadly, and the historical forces leading to the plastic world we know today, now invading nearly every corner of the world’s oceans. Secondly, and where we last left off, the nuts and bolts of the data collection process around the harbour; from early trials and tribulations and site identifications, to a strong observational dataset and a series of recommendations to mitigate the land-sea transfer of waste around into the waters adjacent Halifax.

Over the course of the past several months, the project has began to outgrow its humble origins as an academic exercise, garnering attention from local press and municipal officials, including Halifax Mayor Mike Savage. This post will take us back to the city, and a group effort to turn our findings into an outreach program aimed at connecting with the public, changing negative perceptions surrounding the harbour, and pushing for legislative action on marine pollution.

In one of our first classes of the fall semester, we were introduced to Charlynne Robertson and Erin Burbidge of the Clean Foundation – formerly Clean Nova Scotia – a non-profit environmental organization operating out of the Halifax region since 1988. The Halifax Harbour has long been one of Clean’s many points of focus, with projects like the Atlantic Reef Balls Program, and the Great Nova Scotia Pick-me-up, the latter of which galvanizes citizens in Halifax and across the province each year to come together and clean up Nova Scotia’s shorelines. The harbour itself has always been a special challenge, with a legacy of pollution immersed in the fabric of Haligonian culture. As the Halifax-born hip-hop artist Classified once put it in his 2005 track titled, The Maritimes, “Halifax Harbour’s like swimming in diseases.”

But on that day back in September, Erin and Charlynne described their vision for a different future between Halifax and its harbour; a vision in which the ocean could exist in the minds of Haligonians as a living body, and a place from which we could take, but also a place to which we could give back. Their hope was then, and remains today, to re-brand the harbour’s image, and shine a light on the major sources of its marine pollution.

Categorizing waste at Halifax’s Black Rock Beach.

In the summer of last year, Hillary Windsor, writing for The Coast, had this to say about a recent swim in the Halifax Harbour:

Even though it may be cleaner now than it was before, there’s just something about swimming in the Halifax Harbour that’s still a bit off-putting… [Y]ou can’t help to feel just a bit more uneasy—more vulnerable, guarded or even frightened—than if you were put-putting along in a less industrious setting.

The context for Windsor’s article is one that sells the harbour as an underutilized resource. As a swimmer, she describes the stigma that exists around using the waters at the edge of the city. The “general feeling of WTF are you doing?” when people find out that you intend to jump into the Bedford Basin.

No doubt it’s a well-earned stigma.

Before there was plastic, there was sewage. Halifax was formally established by European settlers on unceded Mi’kmaq territory in the year 1752. By the early 1800s, a municipal bylaw was passed prohibiting the discharge of “slop” in the streets. Slowly, the city built up its sewage infrastructure, and in 1924 it was confirmed by researchers that at least thirteen sewers were discharging raw waste into the Halifax Harbour. It wasn’t until 1956 that treatment was so much as suggested by county officials. Halifax’s relatively small population compared to the dilutive capacity of the Atlantic Ocean meant that few concerns were raised over the harbour’s water quality in the first half of the 20th Century. But sometime between 1956 and the turn of the millennium, the harbour became so polluted as to be essentially unusable.

Somewhere, growing up in the Birch Cove area during this time, is Kelly Schnare’s father. Kelly now leads the Sierra Club Canada’s Re-imagining Atlantic Harbours initiative, which shares many of the same goals and visions for the Halifax Harbour as Erin and Charlynne at the Clean Foundation. Kelly described her father’s experience fishing and collecting mussels along the shores of the Bedford Basin as a child for Halifax Magazine in October of last year. According to Schnare, he was just twelve years old when all that activity essentially came to a halt, after the which the harbour become known as “off-limits” to the young Mr. Schnare, who, for the rest of his life, wouldn’t interact with the harbour in the same way again.

“I don’t know if he got too old, or it got too polluted, but I know an entire generation hasn’t touched the harbour,” Schnare says. “I never interacted with the harbour growing up, except to collect garbage on McNabs Island.”

This idea of generational differences in the way that people interact with and perceive natural spaces has a name. It’s known as “shifting baseline syndrome,” a term coined in 1995 by the work of Daniel Pauly, now at the University of British Columbia. Pauly heads-up the organization Sea Around Us, dedicated to fisheries and marine ecosystem research. He describes shifting baselines in the context of Ghanaian tilapia fisheries at a 2010 TED Talk in the Galapagos Islands, discussing his work with fish stocks in West Africa. Pauly and his colleagues first went to Ghana for research in 1971, when both fish and fishers were thriving, with the popular Ghanaian species black chin tilapia averaging about 20-centimetres in length. Twenty-seven years later, Pauly returned to Ghana to find that the black chin had been so heavily fished that they had undergone a genetic shift – maturing at about half the size of their relatives from nearly three decades before.

“There were still fishers, they were still kind of happy, the fish also were happy to be there… So, nothing has changed, but everything has changed,” says Pauly.

“Every generation will use the images that they got at the beginning of their conscious lives as a standard.” As time progresses, and conditions deteriorate, its that initial image of the ecosystem that people retain in their memories as normal, “and the difference then will be perceived as a loss.”

But just because we remember the ecosystem as it was when we first came to know it, that doesn’t necessarily mean it was healthy, or “normal.” We can’t and won’t remember a thriving ecosystem if we never had the chance to experience it in the first place. We fail to recognize the broad-scale shifts taking place within the natural environments around us, constantly changing over time-periods that outlast the duration of any one human life.

For many, the Halifax Harbour has entered life-after shifting baseline syndrome. Life past the point of no return. An ecosystem for which protection doesn’t warrant any thought, as we’ve accepted the harbour’s standing as a dead place in our collective imagination. An untouchable place.

On the contrary, despite the city’s unfortunate history of dumping and polluting, the Halifax Harbour remains full of life. In November, I had a chance to verify this for myself, diving with other volunteers on the day with the Clean Foundation to monitor and document the progression of biodiversity at the organization’s Atlantic Reef Ball sites. With three sites total, a third in the Bedford Basin, our group dove the formations off McNabs Island and Black Rock Beach at Point Pleasant Park. These curvy, quasi cone-shaped cement structures, two-to-three feet tall, hollowed out and full of holes, nooks, and crannies have become home to an array of North Atlantic marine species. Throngs of northern sea stars, wearing gold or purple; deep-orange blood stars; green sea urchins and Atlantic rock crabs; the prized American lobster; tiny, golden gasflame nudibranchs, sporting fluorescent blue “spikes” with white-hot-coloured tips, and grumpy-looking sculpins were just a few of the residents we found colonizing the artificial reefs – less than three years old – no more than 30-metres from the coastline at McNabs or Point Pleasant.

Much of the water-quality issues in the Halifax Harbour today and traditionally are a product of mismanaged sewage and bacterial release. Plastics or e. coli, regardless of the polluting medium, the long-term solution to help marine environments maintain healthy ecosystems is the same. But it’s going to take the undoing of ideas and habits and infrastructure that has endured now for hundreds of years. As the old cliché goes, however, you’ve got to walk, before you can swim.

The Halifax Harbour provides many functions for the people of the city. After centuries of dumping, pollution in the harbour has become ingrained in the collective imagination of Haligonian residents. Now, environmental leaders are trying to change the story. 

It’s March now, the snows are beginning to melt, and the chill of the Atlantic Canadian winter is slowly fading away in Halifax. The email came from the Marine Affairs administrator, Becky Field:

Monday, March 13 seminar time will be led by Lucia to prep for the March 27 presentation to HRM Mayor Michael Savage.


Originally, the idea behind the Blue Urbanism initiative was to provide students a chance at an academic experience with the potential to do some good for the community, and work with a professional partner. Ultimately, the project would become much more than that. Upon its conclusion, led by Dr. Lucia Fanning, the Marine Affairs faculty took the findings from each of the five study sites, and combined the data collected into a comprehensive report. Included were dozens of site-specific recommendations and “next steps” suggested by the research teams, for waste management around the harbour.

With first-semester coursework wrapped up, and students returning from winter break in January, our task was to work together to come up with a way to summarize the report’s findings for a final presentation for our colleagues at the Clean Foundation. With the help of Dr. James Boxall, a professor with the Department of Earth Sciences and our resident geographic information systems (GIS) expert, we translated our work into an online Story Map. The Story Map is a web medium developed by Esri, the world’s leading GIS company, which allows users to combine interactive spatial mapping software with photo, video and text, to tell a geographically-based “story”; in this case, one about marine pollution.

By the end of January, our Story Map, titled “Blue Urbanism: tackling macro marine pollution in the Halifax Harbour,” was ready to go. In the first week of February, several members of the class gave a well-received presentation for Clean’s Erin Burbidge and Charlynne Robertson, who were eager to ask questions and understand how they could help to address the actionable items identified in the document that they had received from the Marine Affairs team.

At the end of the day, it was smiles and high-fives amongst the students. After almost a semester-and-a-half, this Blue Urbanism project was finally wrapped-up. The ball was now in the Clean Foundation’s court. Or so we thought.

Less than a week after the final presentation, we got an email from Erin. She had bumped into Halifax Councillor Tony Mancini at a networking event. Erin recounted some of the conversation she had had with Councillor Mancini; about his social media account, which he described as “inundated” with comments and requests to reduce the use of plastic bags across the city – a move supported, by Mr. Mancini’s estimates, by about 90-percent of his constituents. In response, Erin mentioned the Blue Urbanism project, and the work that had been done by the Marine Affairs Program on marine pollution around the harbour. He was more than receptive, floating the potential for a meeting with the class to talk more about the issue.

[S]ometimes you just can’t help but seize the day. Charlynne and I will be sure to loop in the city’s Solid Waste Resources staff so they’re not blind-sided.

Fantastic working with you, and here’s hoping the students’ hard work helps raise the profile of marine pollution.


At some point, as we tried to arrange a date that would work for all parties involved, we received news from Dr. Fanning that Councillor Mancini had bowed out of the meeting, in favour of another audience: this time, Mike Savage. Mayor of Halifax. Somehow, the Marine Affairs faculty had landed us an appointment with the city’s top official, interested in the suggestions our class had on how to clean up the harbour.

The date was set for March 27, and after some preparation, we had decided upon a slightly augmented version of the Story Map presentation that we had previously given for Clean. We intended to attach the idea of a revived harbour to what we saw as a yet-unrecognized potential in Halifax to utilize its adjacent waters. Not far from ideas put forth by Erin and Charlynne in our first September meeting; not far from ideas Hillary Windsor wrote about in The Coast, or the ideas driving Kelly Schnare’s Re-Imagining Atlantic Harbours project. We expected a receptive audience in Mayor Savage, a long-time Dartmouth resident hailing from a political family in Halifax; a man who cares deeply for the city and its future.

 When the day finally came, the room was buzzing at the Dalhousie Life Sciences Centre. Mr. Savage and an accompanying staffer had arrived for an 11:30a.m. start-time. As is now standard procedure for any important presentation, the affair began with technical difficulties, mercifully corrected by the more tech-savvy members of the faculty. Eventually, we were able to get underway, running through the story of our findings on marine pollution around the harbour that by now we all knew well, and posing some questions and ideas to the mayor, about what it means to be an “Ocean City” (edited here for clarity):

 How can we design, build, and brand Halifax on an ocean platform to help the city reach its full civic potential?…

… Can we accompany economy, infrastructure and social equity with something more? Can we give people a city not only with technology, accessibility and opportunity, but also health, happiness, and spirit? In this century, we ask our cities to help safeguard the natural wonders that we all cherish, with a growing, and increasingly urban, global population…

…It’s in this context that marine pollution and its prevention fit in the Halifax Harbour. In building urban environments that inspire connection with nature, community, and stewardships that not only make us proud, but keep us healthy, and civically engaged…

…To conclude, let’s step into the future. Imagine for a moment, a coastal city in which planners and developers help to facilitate underwater artwork, providing habitat for marine species, which help to filter the water in the harbour, attracting divers and swimmers and fishers and aqua-culturists, to steward a healthy and accessible ocean environment, providing jobs in ocean agribusiness, tourism and recreation; hyper-local, sustainable seafood products for citizens…

… It’s hard to imagine a more progressive urban function than that. Ecologically conscious, corporate shark-ism. Let’s call it, Blue Urbanism. Let’s call it, Halifax.

 Perhaps not surprisingly, Mayor Savage was enthusiastic about the work we had done, describing the movement currently underway to restrict plastic bag-use in major stores around the municipality. He asked also for more details about the sites we had visited, and pledged to keep the questions we had raised about the future of the city in mind. Most importantly, he suggested we find a date to meet with the Halifax Environment and Sustainability Standing Committee (ESSC); the committee with the real legislative power in this instance, and a committee on which one Councillor Tony Mancini happens to sit.

Finally, several months later, we reach the present day. The meeting with ESSC, attended by our Master of Marine Management student representatives Jo Costa and Jessica Bradford, took place on June 8th – appropriately, World Oceans Day. Jo and Jessica once again presented the Blue Urbanism findings and recommendations to the audience.

“That day, they were voting on a motion to investigate the adoption of a cigarette butt recycling program for Halifax and the motion passed unanimously,” said Jessica about the affair at City Council. “While we can’t say that it was directly related to some of the content of our project and presentation, I am sure there was still some influence there. Some council members were even shocked to learn that there is plastic in cigarette filters.”

 Also on that day, the Halifax Examiner, a local, independent paper, ran a story on marine pollution as well, interviewing two other Marine Management colleagues of mine, Laura Steeves and Mikaila Bickford. The article briefly described the Blue Urbanism project, as well as some of the marine life susceptible to harm-by-plastic in Nova Scotian waters, and urged readers to think of that “chip bag blowing down the street” as more than just an “eyesore.”

 Laura and Mikaila once again pointed to what Mikaila refers to as the “broken windows syndrome” affecting the Halifax Harbour.

 “That’s so true,” said Laura, in interview with the Examiner’s Erica Butler. “There’s this perception that the harbour is toxic, and therefore it’s already gross and icky, so what’s the point [in changing behaviour]?”

Still, slowly, the movement grows. With another Halifax Oceans Week in the books, it now becomes the mission of the city’s ocean advocacy community to stay on message, and keep the momentum rolling. A widespread shift in perception, especially one to change the “don’t swim in the harbour” idea so-ingrained in the city’s collective and historical memory, is not something that happens overnight. But one-by-one, person-by-person, brick-by-brick and councillor-by-councillor, it’s happening. By the same process, one plastic filter at a time, each cigarette that finds it way into a bin is one less that will find its way into the ocean. That’s the power of incrementalism; that’s the power of people like Erin Burbidge and Charlynne Robertson; Dr. Lucia Fanning, Kelly Schnare and Hillary Windsor; Jo and Jessica and Mikaila and Laura and the Marine Management Mafia; people getting behind an idea, and moving it forward. That’s the power of change.

The mission continues.