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National Marine Conservation Areas of Canada

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Canada’s National Marine Conservation Areas System Plan

Scotian Shelf

The Water

That part of the continental shelf known as the Scotian Shelf varies in width from 125 km in the east to 230 km in the west and covers some 120,000 km², with an average depth of 90 m. The shelf is bordered by deep waters — the Laurentian Channel on the east side is over 400 m deep, while the continental slope to the south rapidly attains depths of over 3000 m. A series of shallow banks, 25 m to 100 m below the surface, culminate at Sable Island. These banks are separated by basins and troughs ranging from 160 m to 300 m in depth. A submarine canyon, the Gully, over 1000 m in depth, forms a deep notch at the edge of the continental shelf. As it moves south, the Nova Scotia Current mixes with offshore waters, increasing biological productivity seawards across the continental shelf, an unusual situation. Sea ice is negligible. Upwelling is common. The Gulf Stream has a strong influence on this region and a variety of species more commonly found further south appear at regular intervals, a result of the warm water cores that spin off from the main current.

The Coast

A low-lying, indented rocky coast with large embayments, headlands, low cliffs and numerous coastal islands is typical of this region. Sable Island, some 200 km offshore, is an extension of the Sable Island Bank. Dominated by sand dunes, the island rises 26 m above sea level and is a 40-km-long crescent, 1 km wide at its widest point.

The Wildlife

Along with the Grand Banks, the Scotian Shelf is one of the most heavily utilized fishing areas in the Atlantic region. A wide range of fish and shellfish species are found here, many with important spawning and nursery grounds in the region. Compared to other Atlantic marine regions, few birds breed in the area. The Coast is more important as a migratory staging area for waterfowl and shorebirds, while offshore waters are important to wintering dovekies, murres, shearwaters, common eiders and other sea ducks, and alcids. Roseway Basin off southwestern Nova Scotia is a critical habitat for the endangered right whale, some 30% of the known population occupying the area over the course of the year. The northern bottlenose whale occurs offshore, preferring the deep waters along the edge of the shelf and particularly The Gully east of Sable Island, where a unique, non-migratory population of some 230 individuals is found. Sperm whales, particularly adult males, are also quite abundant in this area. Various other cetaceans are also common as they take advantage of the rich summer feeding. Harbour seals are residents of the region, and grey seals are observed year-round, breeding in colonies, notably on Sable Island.


This region is not yet represented in the national marine conservation areas system. Three representative marine areas have been identified: Roseway Basin, Sable Island/The Gully, Canso Offshore Islands. Selection of the preferred site for consideration as a possible national marine conservation area is the next step. (For details on the establishment process, see The NMCA Program.)

Last Updated: 2013-05-10 To the top
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