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N.S. oceanside hamlet bands together to protect itself from climate change

Hope Shanks has seen more than her fair share of the effects of climate change.

At least once a year, the bookkeeper for the restaurant and shop in Halls Harbour, N.S., has to help clean up after water from the Bay of Fundy breaches the seawall, sweeps across the parking lot and floods the restaurant.

Most recently, on Christmas Eve, the Halls Harbour Lobster Pound was inundated with more than a metre of water.

“Our staff does a great job. You would not know that there was seaweed in here,” Shanks says, looking around the restaurant one morning in mid-February.

Still, she hopes someday she won’t have to deal with damage on a regular basis.

A woman in a flowered shirt stands in front of bar taps inside a restaurant.
Hope Shanks, the bookkeeper for the restaurant and gift shop in Halls Harbour, N.S., says the building floods during storms at least once a year. (Robert Short/CBC)

“It would be so nice next winter to not have to worry about whether or not the tide is going to wash us away.”

That day may not come next winter — or even the following one — but it could be on its way.

Impacts of climate change

Halls Harbour is a picturesque community that’s a popular tourist draw, known for its tides that lift the fishing boats moored to the wharf at high tide and then lower them to the harbour floor at low tide. 

Visitors must navigate a steep descent into the heart of the community, then a hairpin turn in the road that leads to a rocky beach and a few businesses.

But the proximity to the water that appeals to residents and visitors is also what threatens the community.

The seawall, made of huge boulders and concrete blocks, isn’t enough to hold in powerful storm surges. Those enormous rocks, meant to protect the harbour and the buildings, sometimes get washed right into the harbour, preventing boats from getting in and out. 

Large boulders are seen in the foreground while a rocky beach and cliffs topped with trees are seen in the distance.
A seawall of large boulders edges the beach in Halls Harbour, N.S. During strong storms, water from the Bay of Fundy sometimes breaches the seawall. (Robert Short/CBC)

An old sluiceway that for decades has controlled the flow of water under the road is no longer up to the tasks Mother Nature now throws at it. The main road sometimes floods during storms, and erosion has started to eat away at the supports underneath.

A road is flooded with rushing water.
The main road in Halls Harbour floods during major storms, causing erosion under the road. (Submitted by Madonna Spinazola)

“A major storm, it’s like Niagara Falls over there,” says Madonna Spinazola, president of the Halls Harbour Community Development Association. “We’ve seen storm damage that we’ve had to repair every single year. Lately, since Juan and Dorian … we’re seeing them not only every year, but two or three times a year.”

Plan to protect

The community development association has devised a plan to help protect Halls Harbour from the stronger storms and sea level rise caused by climate change.

The group’s Climate Change Waterfront Initiative aims to increase the height of the seawall, repair the wharf, extend the breakwaters to help protect boats and widen the entrance to the harbour to allow larger boats in and out.

A woman in a purple jacket stands on a walkway with a fishing boat visible in the water behind her.
Madonna Spinazola, the president of the Halls Harbour Community Development Association, says she expects the project to cost about $20 million. (Robert Short/CBC)

The plans also aim to improve the experience of visitors, with longer boardwalks, seating, a playground, a sloped pebble beach suitable for swimming and more parking, including for tour buses.

An illustration shows what Halls Harbour would look like if the changes are made.
An illustration shows what Halls Harbour could look like if the project is approved and funded. (Engineering by Houghton and the Glenn Group)

Fred Huntley, who fishes out of Halls Harbour on the Lady Chantel, says he’s eager to see the proposed changes take place.

“Right now you couldn’t get a boat in here or out if you had to because it’s full of gravel,” he says. “If they could somehow widen it and keep that from happening every year, definitely be an asset.”

Two men talk among brightly coloured lobster traps in the foreground.
Fred Huntley, right, who fishes out of Halls Harbour, says the proposed changes will be helpful for the fishing industry. (Robert Short/CBC)

Organizers say the plans will also allow more boats to moor at the wharf, and a new boat ramp could allow fishermen to do repairs in Halls Harbour rather than going elsewhere.

Multimillion-dollar project

The group expects their big dreams to come with a big price tag — roughly $20 million. It’s a tall order, especially for a project spearheaded by a group of volunteers.

The association says although the community is small — Halls Harbour itself boasts just a few dozen year-round residents, while the larger area, called the Halls Harbour Fire District, encompasses about 200 to 300 — it’s also passionate about preserving it for future generations.

“If we want it bad enough, if we want to do this for our community, we can do it, no question,” says Spinazola. “Change is going to come, and the best way for a community, especially a small rural or coastal community in Nova Scotia, is to galvanize together and say this is what we want our community to look like in 80 years.”

The development association has already received $18,000 from the municipal government for design work on the project, and eventually plans to approach all three levels of government for more financial support. In the meantime, the group is pledging to collect $150,000 through fundraising efforts.

A man in a red jacket stands by the harbour with a few buildings in the background.
Dick Killam is councillor for District 3 in the Municipality of the County of Kings. (Robert Short/CBC)

For Dick Killam, the councillor for the area — who is also Spinazola’s husband — supporting the project is a no-brainer.

Killam says the success of Halls Harbour as a tourist destination and fishing community will provide economic benefits for the whole municipality.

Plus, he says, it’s simply a special place that deserves to be preserved.

“I just think it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world, so you try to do what you can to protect it and save it for the next generations.”

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