Working Waterfronts

Working waterfronts in Atlantic Canada are sites or facilities used for ocean-dependent activities and businesses. The waterfronts provide services and physical access to the sea. These facilities have always been the traditional lifeblood of our coastal communities, and while this is still true for many coastal areas, the situation is changing in some places. The social and economic well-being of many of these communities has been threatened by the decline of many fishery resources and shifts in the provincial economy. Other coastal communities have thrived, mainly due to the growth of other industries including tourism, offshore oil and gas, and aquaculture.


How do we support our working waterfronts?

As many communities shifted from fisheries-based jobs to other livelihoods, the federal government changed who was responsible for many of the waterfront facilities. Over a period of 15 years, the federal government divested many of these facilities, either by selling them or by giving up their management. The government sold some of the larger ports in Atlantic Canada outright, as well as some of the smaller harbours, but kept ownership of the majority of the smaller harbour facilities. While the federal government continues to own and fund those, it has handed over much of the day-to-day operations and maintenance to municipalities, local community groups, and the private sector.

Local management of harbour facilities has its benefits, but it can also pose significant challenges for the local groups that operate and maintain the facilities. Additional challenges come from major changes taking place in many coastal communities across the province. These include changes in demographics such as age and household income, and in population due to migration from rural to urban areas. These trends have had major social and economic effects on the communities and their ability to support their working waterfronts.


Working waterfront ports

 There are three broad types of ports with working waterfronts in Atlantic Canada

  1. Canada Port Authority ports 

There are four in Atlantic Canada, Belledune and Saint John in New Brunswick, Halifax in Nova Scotia and St. John’s in Newfoundland and Labrador.

  1. Local and regional ports

 These ports are former Transport Canada ports e.g. Mulgrave Marine Terminal, Strait of Canso, but are now managed by private companies, municipalities, and not-for-profit organizations.

Information on Transport Canada’s Port Programs is available online

  1. Small craft harbours

These harbours such as Baileys Brook (Lismore), Nova Scotia are now often managed by local community-based or private groups called Small Craft Harbour Authorities.

Small Craft Harbours were traditionally used only by the commercial fishery. Now they are also used by other sectors that benefit from direct access to the sea, such as tourism and recreation. Other industries that use Small Craft Harbours include aquaculture, marine construction, fish processing, ship and boat building, government services, water transportation, and offshore energy and renewable projects.

The federal government divested many of the Small Craft Harbours to local community groups, municipalities, or the private sector.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Small Craft Harbours Branch publishes a monthly bulletin available online, as well as the following provincial maps:

For more information on Small Craft Harbours visit the Department of Fisheries and Oceans website for Small Craft Harbours

Issues identified for working waterfronts

Issues for working waterfronts are identified in the State of Nova Scotia’s Coast Report, and stated as follows: 

Coastal communities that rely on working waterfronts face increasing

pressure on their human and financial resources.

This is a concern for the following reasons

  • SCH port authorities are dependent on volunteers.
  • Federal funding for wharf maintenance is limited. Current and projected funding levels aren’t enough to maintain the wharves and other facilities.
  • Small port authorities are generally not able to earn the extra money needed to upgrade the existing wharf infrastructure, let alone invest in new infrastructure and businesses.
  • Almost 21 per cent of Nova Scotia’s most active harbours were rated as substandard in 2004. DFO-SCH criteria concerning maintenance and operations were used by the Coastal Communities Network to rate the harbours.
  • Many current working waterfronts don’t have the infrastructure needed to expand to other businesses such as aquaculture and tourism.

The report Issues Scan of Selected Coastal and Ocean Areas of Newfoundland and Labrador (July 2008) recommended a Marine Infrastructure Strategy 

“Reports of deteriorating and inadequate marine infrastructure permeated the issues scan discussions. A thorough inventory and assessment of present and future marine infrastructure needs is required as soon as possible to provide the basis for an informed, practical, cost-effective and collaborative (among all levels of government and community) marine infrastructure strategy.”

Working waterfront communities

Many communities in Atlantic Canada are home to Small Craft Harbours.

These communities are especially vulnerable to the changes in the provincial economies because they: 

  • have economic bases that are narrower than those of the communities linked with the larger ports
  • have more of their economies tied to their working waterfronts than the communities around the larger ports
  • are mostly experiencing a drop in socio-economic health, which strongly affects the character and life of rural coastal communities
  • have a declining population base


Other concerns

The amount of waterfront maintenance and capital investment needed in these working waterfronts is much greater than the resources available. 

Safety concerns over the harbour facilities are rising because of:

  • the age of the wharves
  • the use of larger fishing boats
  • wider range of users such as bulk carriers, tourism enterprises, aquaculture, and recreational users
  • increasingly crowded conditions
  • more frequent and stronger storms

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