As a large, complex estuary, the marine environment of the Bras d’Or ecosystem is intimately linked to the aquatic and terrestrial components of the watershed. The Mi’kmaq name for the Lake is “Pi’ tupaq”, which may be translated as “to which all waters flow”. The population of the Bras d’Or watershed influences the Lake primarily through activities on the adjacent land and shorelines. The Mi’kmaq First Nations people, the original residents of Unama’ki (Cape Breton Island), occupy five substantial communities in the watershed, and have taken a prominent role in promulgating a holistic understanding of the ecosystem. Their ongoing effort to integrate local knowledge, the social and natural sciences in research and education represents a rich theme of interdisciplinary innovation and technological inquiry within a well-defined domain.

The Bras d’Or Lake estuary and its associated watershed have long been recognized by scientists for its unique ecosystem and vast potential as a living laboratory. Here is a body of salt water more than 1,200 square kilometers in area that is largely unpolluted, sheltered from major storms, convenient for scientific research, and already understood in terms of its principal aquatic and terrestrial properties.

The Bras d ’Or Lake is practically untapped for its great potential in the field of marine science research. Concerns for the environment and the increased acceptance of the realities of global warming have heightened environmental awareness among scientists, politicians, and the general public alike. Recent experiences with intense weather conditions have given immediacy to this issue for everyone, and for Atlantic Canada the example of the dramatic decline of fish stocks has raised questions of sustainable environmental management never considered by earlier generations. Centuries ago, the Bras d’ Or Lake eco-system teemed with fish, including, cod, herring, mackerel, salmon, trout, eel, gaspareau, flounder and shellfish. Unlike today, it revealed itself as a natural, bountiful, spawning ground. What has changed? Why is that the Bras d’ Or Lake is no longer the abundant spawning ground it was in earlier centuries? As a microcosm of the world’s oceans, perhaps there is advantage in better utilizing the lake’s assets as an opportune natural laboratory for rejuvenating fish stocks, evaluating their sustainable growth and future productivity?

In a September 19th, 2020 article published in The Halifax Chronicle Herald, entitled “No Green Recovery Without Blue Economy”, author Josh Laughren, Executive Director Oceana Canada, logs the following strategic points:

  • According to government figures, the oceans are a source of approximately 350,000 jobs in Canada
  • The term “blue economy” is a flexible one that can include almost anything related to the ocean: energy, shipping, tourism, recreation, aquaculture, transmission cables, and much more.
  • Annual audits show that the overall health of Canada’s fish stocks continue to decline
  • Prime Minister, The Right Hon. Justin Trudeau and the Minister of Fishers, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard, The Hon. Bernadette Jordan, have stated that the blue economy is essential for Canada’s economic recovery.
  • There is no green recovery without a blue economy, and no blue economy without fish.

Marine science is central to these issues and has an important and growing role to play in understanding our relationship with the environment. According to the World Bank, one in 10 people in the world depend on the fishing industry for their livelihood.


This proposal, to build a multi-use centre at the Port of Iona on the Bras d ’Or Lake, has come forward because it is recognized by the Central Cape Breton Community that there is great potential in the location and that further diversification of the existing tourism product in the region is required for continuing economic growth. Scientific authorities have long reported that the Bras d ’Or Lake offers unique opportunities for marine science research practically unrivalled anywhere else in the world. The Bras d ’Or Lake continues to offer opportunities for recreational boating, water sports, and various leisure activities. More are plausible. For the tourist, scientist and student visitor alike, the Iona site, at the geographic centre of Cape Breton Island, and nexus of the Bras d’Or Lake Biosphere, is conveniently accessible by road and water from all directions.

A very diverse range of habitats and ecosystems can be easily accessed in the Lake. Additionally, in open marine ecosystems, the study of relationships between trophic levels is difficult because the association of benthic and pelagic communities is transient and brief, as is the residence time of the water over any particular area of seabed. For the marine scientist, nowhere is more central to the Bras d’ Or Lake than the Barra Strait, as it has easy access by boat to all the many areas of research within the lake system. There is a good supply of excellent quality seawater essential to the aquaria and laboratory water system, and there are no industrial or aqua-cultural farms in the area that are weighty limiting factors, and could compromise intake water quality. Marine science research requires appropriate balances of technologies and facilities that maximize efficiency and safety. The most expensive part of ocean research is travel to and logistic support at the study locale. The shallow cove formed by the proposed breakwater provides a protected area for the marine outbuildings and moorage floats where research boats take on scientists, diving gear, research equipment and off-load marine samples.

The beauty of the locale and its access to attractive amenities adds value to the science facility by making it a desirable destination for extended sabbatical research and vacations by scientists accompanied by their families. The option is particularly attractive for central Canadian and international scientists. Iona is the geographic hub of the island. It’s an hour driving time distance from major population centres – simply a day trip. A day trip away from wherever a tourist might wish to overnight. Its vistas are certainly on a par with any others, of the many that the island is noted for.

Iona has so much to offer as a community with different cultures and a region that has extraordinary historical significance in its first Mi’kmaq settlers, its seafaring traditions in the Bras d’Or Lake, and its industrial heritage as a main gateway for the shipment of coal and steel only possible by the construction of the Intercolonial Railway linking Cape Breton with the outside world. These attributes alone attract tourists from near and far to learn of the area’s history.