Tidal Power Project Makes Waves in Canada

Plan to install giant turbines in Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy has fishermen, environmentalists concerned

“I am a fisherman,” Darren Porter said. “It’s not only what I do, but who I am.” He is big and burly. In a bar fight, I would gladly have him in front of me clearing the way. He operates a weir fishery in Nova Scotia’s Minas Basin, on the southeast side of the Bay of Fundy. The bay has the highest tides and strongest currents in the world, which now presents a problem for Porter. The power industry wants to install giant turbines in the passage to Minas Basin, maybe more than one hundred of them, to harvest the wealth of Nova Scotia’s tides, generating megawatts of energy along with enormous profits. The turbines look like giant food processors, standing five stories high.

photo of fishing boat in Bay of FundyPhoto by Shawn HarquailA fishing weir in the Bay of Fundy. Plans to install giant turbines in the Minas Passage, on the southeast side of the bay, have local fishermen concerned.

The Bay of Fundy is at the end of the Gulf of Maine, bordered by the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. When the tide flows into the outer bay, 160 billion tons of water rush in at a speed of one to two meters per second. Where the bay narrows to squeeze through the five-and-a-half kilometer wide Minas Passage, 14 billion tons of seawater accelerate to five meters per second.

For Porter, every tide is either, “Christmas, or a slap in the face,” as he puts it, depending on how many fish it brings in. When I visited the weir with him in June, he eyeballed all the birds gathered around his weir, then lit his pipe and said in a broad accent, “We got fish in there today.”

Porter’s weir is a type of fish trap that takes advantage of the tides. The design is ancient, used by the First Nation people of Nova Scotia well before Europeans colonized the region. There used to be a weir every mile along the coast, maybe a couple hundred of them in total. Now there are only six.

The weir Porter uses has two wings that are each 1000 feet long. The weir is covered by netting to guide the fish into the trap section where the two wings come together. At high tide, it is covered by 40 feet of water. When the tide goes out, the weir goes to work, trapping fish behind the netting. There is a pond in the trap to keep fish alive, and a gated channel from the trap to a holding pond where unwanted species are kept until the next tide comes in and takes them away.

Porter fishes the weir from mid-March through mid-August. He’s forbidden to keep the most valuable fish that were the staple species for fishermen in the old days. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) closed all weirs for Atlantic salmon, striped bass, and sturgeon decades ago due to declining catches. The configuration of the weirs has been altered to reduce the bycatch of these species, and those that are caught are returned to the bay alive. Now, most of the herring, flounder, shad, and gaspereau (also known as alewife) that Porter catches are sold as bait to lobster fishermen. He doesn’t make much money, just enough to survive.

He fears he may soon make even less if groups like Fundy Ocean Research Center for Energy (FORCE), a nonprofit organization formed by energy developers and the Nova Scotia Department of Energy, have their way. After meeting with Porter, I joined Matt Lumley, FORCE’s director of communications, in the organization’s 10th floor conference room in downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia to get a better sense of FORCE’s role. As Lumley explained, FORCE serves as a host to technology developers, a catalyst to safe development of power in the Bay of Fundy. To that end, FORCE has installed a 16 megawatt (MW) subsea power export cable at a cost of $15 million in anticipation of tidal power development in the region. It is already renting space on the cable to development partners: Cape Sharp Tidal, Black Rock Tidal, DP Energy, Minas Energy, and Atlantic Resources.

FORCE thinks this investment will pay off, estimating that the Bay of Fundy has the potential to produce 7000 MW of power, enough to provide for three million homes. Other groups agree. Stephen Dempsey, the executive director of the Offshore Energy Research Association of Nova Scotia, a not-for-profit that funds offshore energy development and environmental research, has highlighted the benefits of for the economy, citing research indicating that tidal power in Nova Scotia will create 22,000 fulltime jobs and generate 1.7 billion dollars of revenue. Besides the economic rewards, generation of electricity from tidal power is considered “green,” reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.

Given the big payoffs in terms of both energy and revenue, FORCE is moving full steam ahead. In late summer of 2016, FORCE wants to install two “test” turbines for Cape Sharp Tidal, a cooperative venture of energy company Emera and turbine manufacturer OpenHydro, as a first step in developing tidal power in the bay. Originally scheduled for early June, controversy with local fishermen has delayed the deployment of the turbines. Cape Sharp Tidal’s webpage indicates that the company plans to generate 16 MW of energy in 2017 with the installation of 8 turbines, 50 MW in 2019 with 25 turbines, and 300 MW by the 2020s with 150 turbines. Black Rock Tidal, a renewable energy company, plans to install 40 turbines. The other three partner developers haven’t yet stated how many turbines they plan to build.

FORCE plays a dual role. In addition to facilitating the turbine development project, the organization oversees environmental monitoring for the Bay of Fundy tidal energy project. It is here, in particular, that the organization has run into considerable opposition, especially with the release of its Environmental Effects Monitoring Plan (EEMP) for the two demonstration turbines, which was released in March.

The EEMP was assessed by the DFO and the respected not-for-profit Ecology Action Centre (EAC), both of which found parts of the monitoring plan problematic. Both entities wrote advisory letters, pointing out, among other issues, FORCE’s inability to monitor the impact of turbines on fish and marine mammal mortality, the general scarcity of information about the interaction of marine resources with the turbines, and the inadequate knowledge surrounding what it would mean to scale up the project past the test phase. The EAC also noted that the acoustic monitoring technology FORCE plans to employ is unable to identify animals observed around the turbines to the species level. As EAC wrote in its letter, “A lack of existing technology is not a sufficient excuse to not properly monitor effects.”

In spite of these problems, the Department of Environment signed off on FORCE’s monitoring plan, calling it “an adaptive monitoring plan.” Cape Sharp Tidal has approval to install the test turbines, but must apply for approval of more turbines later.

photo of Darren Porter Photo by Erica Danae Porter Darren Porter at his weir in Minas Basin.

Porter feels fishermen have been disregarded when it comes to the turbine plans; there have not been public meetings with them. “We are often overlooked by the excitement of a new industry wishing to share the marine environment with us, but find ourselves having to become fishermen scientists and guardians of the environment,” he said in an interview with the Chronicle Herald. He added in a remark to the Digbey Courier, “We haven’t been able to kill a striped bass since 1996, not commercially, so I want to know how many striped bass [Cape Sharp Tidal] are allowed to kill? How many is acceptable? How many harbor porpoises?”

Porter makes a good point. The turbines will be located in the narrow channel of the Minas Passage, which is frequented by whales, sharks, seals, lobsters, herring, shad, sturgeon, sea bass, and salmon, among many other marine species.

As Mike Dadswell, a retired professor at Nova Scotia’s Acadia University, asked during a talk at the university in 2014, “why sacrifice one renewable resource for another?”

And in fact, there is a history of tidal power wreaking havoc on marine wildlife in the region. The 20 MW Anapolis Royal tidal project, which Lumley mentioned when we met, was built by Nova Scotia Power in 1984. It uses a “barrage” type system that traps water behind a dam on the incoming tide, and captures the power when the water is released. The Anapolis head pond is believed to have captured two whales, one of which died. Mike Dadswell calls it a “fish killer.” Populations of several fish species that migrate up the Anapolis River to spawn have been damaged by the turbine. In spite of the environmental impact, the Anapolis Royal plant is still in operation.

Lumley insists the new “in stream” turbines are different. “We have common ground with the fishermen, we all have questions,” Lumley said. “The two central questions are: is it safe and is it affordable?” The new turbines, which weigh 1,000 tons and stand 48 feet high, are designed to run at a slow speed, 6-10 RPM. Lumley says the fish will be able to avoid the turbines and the blades. After all, he pointed out, “Fish avoid rocks.”

Hearing him say this, I thought to myself, 6-10 RPM seems slow, but each turbine has 10 blades. A blade slices by any fixed point at a rate faster than one per second. Using a combination of vision and motion-sensing cells, fish can avoid turbines. But swift-flowing muddy water and blades passing by every second could present them with a challenge. Shear and pressure effects of the rotating blades can also damage fish, though impacts will vary by species and size of fish.

Dadswell, who has been a vocal opponent of the turbine project, has also pointed out that the current in Minas Passage flows at five meters per second, far exceeding the average swimming speed of most fishes. At those speeds the fish don’t control their interaction with the turbines, the currents do.

Porter, who has spent a lot of time studying the fisheries science and turbines, gets angry when FORCE representatives quote studies from Scotland, where a large tidal project is currently being constructed, saying that test turbines show no evidence of damage to marine life. Porter chides that what they leave out is that the technology to detect damage doesn’t yet exist, just as the DFO and EAC pointed out in their advisory letters. As he says, “Lack of evidence of impact is not the same as evidence of lack of impact.”

Nonetheless, FORCE is ready to proceed with the project. “FORCE concludes that any harm by the turbines to fish would be insignificant,” Lumley said. “How much do you have to study before you put one in?”

Most people think it’s a given that the turbines will go in. The energy industry’s public relations, legal, and political machinery is highly networked, sophisticated, and powerful. The industry just keeps hammering away. Eventually it will happen. Why else would the power development companies be renting space on the power cable even before they are allowed to plug in?

The fishermen, on the other hand, don’t have a unified approach to fighting the project. They aren’t, however, giving up, and they have the billion-dollar lobster industry on their side, lending considerable resources to the fight.

Colin Sproul, spokesperson for the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen’s Association, said in a CBC radio interview that last year that lobster harvests brought in $500 million to the fishermen in the region, adding that the Bay of Fundy is the largest spawning ground for American lobster in the world. A lobster permit in Fundy can cost $2 million, and the boats are costly, often over $1 million. It’s a different business from the weirs, but could also be harmed by the turbines. The association is considering legal action against Cape Sharp to delay the installation.

“The reason for our involvement in this is to preserve our way of life and culture,” Sproul said in the interview. “We will not see it washed away by corporate efficiency and greed.”

Porter isn’t against tidal power. He believes that in the right conditions, it can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, but he’d like to see that things are done right. The effect of the turbines on the marine ecosystem need to be properly assessed before it’s too late to turn back, particularly somewhere like the Minas Passage, where high flow conditions introduce additional unknowns. Porter and Sproul are joined by the Clean Ocean Action Committee and more than thirty fishing and environmental organizations supporting efforts to halt the deployment of the turbines until the right tools are available to determine potential damage.

At low tide, Porter showed me the remains of an ancient weir in the mud. The worn stubs of the poles look like the skeleton of a toothed whale’s jawbone emerging from the sediment. He had one of the “teeth” in the cab of his pickup truck. He handed it to me in reverence. It is worn and polished smooth. “It’s not about you or me, it’s about the water and Earth,” he said. “You understand what I’m saying?” I understood.

Porter told me that he doesn’t fear standing in the way of an industry known for its aggressive pursuit of profits. He believes that there is a greater power. Individuals have to step up to make a difference in the world and to serve unconditionally. His weir fits into a grander picture of his community, Nova Scotian culture, and nature. He asks the simple question, “Whose water is it?”

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