Bras d'Or Lake

UNESCO. Comité Español del Programa MAB, 2006; Instituto Geográfico Nacional

Bras d'Or Lake is located in Nova Scotia and encompasses a salt-water estuary watershed “inland sea” with three passages to the Atlantic Ocean.

Designation Date: July 2011
Administrative authorities: Bras d‘Or Lake Biosphere Reserve Association
Surface area: 356588 ha
Core area(s): 7712
Buffer zone(s): 61460
Transition area(s): 290,770 

Ecological Characteristics

Aerial view of Bras d'Or Lake, Canada

The Bras d‘Or estuary and its associated watershed is one of Canada‘s charismatic ecosystems. The Holocene transgression flooded a complex river-lake system of diverse geology, creating a small, deep inland sea with twelve significant watersheds draining both highlands and lowlands. Its position at the nexus of the Greenland Current, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and the Gulf Stream‘s “meander” fostered post-glacial colonization from Arctic, temperate and tropical regions.

The resulting marine biodiversity includes representative organisms from environments spanning 30 degrees of latitude. It complements an extensive watershed dominated by sub-boreal Acadian forest interspersed with a variety of terrestrial biomes associated with a broad range of bedrock features, glacial-fluvial deposits, soil horizons and micro climatic zones.

The presence of a sea, within an island, within an ocean, has permitted the evolution of a unique suite of communities within a compact, scenic domain currently known as the Bras d‘Or. Terrestrial, marine and coastal habitats proved as suitable for Homo sapiens as for other organisms; indigenous people colonized the region as soon as retreating glaciers allowed.

Their descendents comprise the five Mi‘kmaq bands that constitute a significant proportion of the current population, and that occupy a substantial portion of the watershed lands. Waves of European colonists, primarily from France, Scotland and England, capitalized on the natural resources of the area, progressively exploiting forest wood, arable land and mineral deposits (particularly coal, precious metals, aggregate and limestone) in addition to the prolific marine fish that originally drew them across the Atlantic.

At its peak during the early part of the last century, the human population of the Bras d‘Or was at least twice its current size. Subsequent economic and demographic transitions gutted many of the renewable resource industries and these transitions continue to challenge the economic viability of extractive enterprises.

The emergence of a knowledge-based service economy has been slow, due in part to the chronic economic depression that has afflicted the entire Island during the past four decades and led to massive out-migration of youth. Non-resident and non-working ownership of much of the best coastal land further challenges economically sustainable development of the Bras d‘Or. Recreational, cultural and nature tourism is the underachieving best hope for economic and population growth in the Bras d‘Or.

Higher prices for gasoline threaten the viability of tourist volume, while at the same time, it offers the potential to fuel a resurgence of local agriculture, aquaculture and renewable energy production. An emerging cohort of the Mi‘kmaq peoples (whose mean age is half that of the white population and who are more site-attached to the region) is showing leadership and enthusiasm for a new way of making the Bras d‘Or “work” without destroying its natural essence.

Thus, a significant opportunity exists for the low-density population, of high education, to experiment with creative approaches to reconciling economically and ecologically sustainable development.

The Collaborative Environmental Planning Initiative for the Bras d‘Or Lakes reflects the best intentions of more than twenty agencies and organizations, all legally empowered to manage human activity in the region. It represents the human spirit of the Bras d‘Or that, along with the remarkable non-human elements of the ecosystem, ensures that a UNESCO MAB Biosphere Reserve in this watershed will contribute substantially to the sustained ecological, cultural, and socioeconomic vitality of the area and surrounding region, and become a model of harmony between human activities and a diverse biosphere that will be recognized nationally and internationally.

Protection Classifications

  • Major ecosystem type: Temperate Needleleaf Forests and Woodlands
  • Major habitats & land cover types: Bras d‘Or Lake; Bras d‘Or Forests; Subwatersheds
  • Location (latitude & longitude):  Centroid: 45°53'12.992" N 60°42'13.608" W
  • Total area (ha): 356 588
  • Core area(s): 7 712
  • Buffer zone(s): 61 460
  • Transition area(s) 290 770
  • Different existing zonation: N/A
  • Altitudinal range (metres above sea level): +270 metres to – 280 metres relative to sea level


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