The Bras d’Or Lakes are so unique that we hardly know what to call them. They have been described as an inland sea, an estuary complex, and a fjord; yet none of these names alone accurately describes the Bras d’Or. At the most basic level, they can be described as depressions in the rocks which form Cape Breton Island, that fill up with water. Some of this water is collected from the hills, mountains and valleys surrounding the lake and channeled through the ground or by rivers, streams, and rivulets, into the Lakes.
However, unlike your usual lake, the Bras d’Or also accepts much of its water from the surrounding sea — the Atlantic Ocean. Through the narrow passage at the Little Bras d’Or, the larger Great Bras d’Or Channel and the man-made St. Peter’s canal, sea water, along with a great variety of life, enters and exits the Lakes. The Lakes are often called an estuary complex because of this mixing of salt water with freshwater; an environment in between the oceanic and the freshwater systems, which is influenced by both. The lake water is salty, but not as salty as the ocean.
As you can begin to see, the Bras d’Or Lakes ecosystem is very complex and unique. Everything from its depth and shape, to how nutrients, resources and life forms of all shapes and sizes, move and interact, is varied and diverse. Micro-ecosystems and climates exist all around the Lakes. In the waters, there are both cold water arctic species and warm water species from the south. Shallow warm bays are contrasted with deep cold water canyons.
Around the Lakes’ shore, a diversity of human communities also live, sharing and using the resources of the watershed. The first people of this area, the Mi’kmaq, have long lived in harmony with this landscape. You’ll also find here a rich heritage from the early Acadian, Scottish Gaelic, and English speaking settlers. Today, people from all over the globe are also living, visiting and vacationing in the Bras d’Or watershed. The watershed covers an area of about 3500 km, or roughly 1/3 of Cape Breton Island.
So why do we need to think about conservation and environmental protection of the Bras d’Or Lakes and watershed? As we learn and study more about this unique ecosystem, we are beginning to see that the Lakes are very sensitive to pollution and contaminants. Because the waters in the Bras d’Or take a long time to flush through the system, up to 2 years in some areas, pollutants released into the water stay there for a long time, having negative impacts on the creatures and plants living there. In recent years, there have been an increasing number of shellfish closures in the Bras d’Or, do to high levels of fecal coliform contamination.
There are other threats besides declining water quality that are having a negative impact on the watershed too, like invasive species. For example, the European green crab (Carcinus maenas), which made its way to North America in the ballast water of cargo ships, is thought to be displacing the native Rock Crab (Cancer irroratus) in the Bras d’Or. Invasive species are species that are not native to an ecosystem, but which are well adapted to the conditions and able to out-compete with the local species once introduced. This creates an imbalance in the ecosystem, usually causing a loss of biodiversity of native species. Invasive species are very difficult to control once they have become well established.
Another concern in the Bras d’Or watershed is the sustainable use of natural resources. Unfortunately, our past has shown us that if we are not careful about how we use the gifts nature provides us with, we can exploit a resource until it can no longer survive. The decline of salmon and cod in our waters are examples where we have taken too much. It is imperative that we learn from these mistakes, take precautions and implement sustainable practices to ensure that we do better in the future. We must listen to the wisdom of the First Nation communities, and ensure that the resources of the Bras d’Or will be available for generations to come.
The majority of land in the Bras d’Or Lakes watershed is privately owned. This means that in order to preserve biodiversity in the watershed, the citizens must take action. We do not have the option of leaving it to the government to ensure our environment is protected. We must identify areas of high ecological value and find ways to make sure they are protected.
We are working to help citizens in the Bras d’Or Lakes watershed with this process. We are helping them to learn about the Lakes and all its wonderful complexity and diversity. We are endeavoring to instill in them the desire and willingness to help protect and conserve what we have for the future, and we are here to assist them in making a lasting and tangible contribution to conservation in the Bras d’Or.
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