OP-ED: Protection of environment is paramount

Opinion

Place: Northumberland Strait

Time 2026

This is the tale of J.B. McClick and his desire to purchase fishing gear, boat and licence and become part of a strong fraternity, the lobster fisherman of Northumberland Strait. J.B., now 25 years old, recently married and with a child on the way, was thrilled that he had the opportunity to attain his goal.

He had worked as a fisherman’s helper, understood the inherit dangers and appreciated the rewards of hard work. This long awaited chance presented itself at the end of November 2025 when a gentleman with whom he worked offered him the business. There will be more of J. B.’s chronicle but allow me to digress and afford you a flashback to the years 2018-20.

So much was happening at that tumultuous time surrounding the “Pipe” fiasco so in order for you to digest it all, my plan is to take you on a journey…

There were meetings organized by Northern Pulp with their point of view detailed and their vision for the pipe installation. This type of PR was their way of proffering the notion there was nothing to worry about.

The fishermen, their union, Friends of Northumberland and individuals opposed to the “Pipe” did their part with a plethora of protests, presentations, rallies and an awareness campaign. Local entrepreneurs like Paul Sobey, Stirling MacLean, Bruce Herron and Joan Baxter criticized the damage already inflicted and tried to warn of a future that would possibly lead to the decimation of the lobster industry and other aspects of fishing life. Wes Surrett argued passionately how tourism was going to be adversely affected and therefore hurt the overall economy.

MLA Karla MacFarlane did her best to encourage Minister of Environment Iain Rankin and Minister of Fisheries Keith Coldwell to visit the county and hear the concerns. That did not happen. Federal Minister of Fisheries Dominic LeBlanc closed a number of fishing districts to protect the right whale. Jobs were jeopardized, money was lost, so why did he not see the need to protect lobsters in the Northumberland Strait? Was one species more important than the other? What would have been the political ramifications of protecting one and not the other? When challenged, Minister LeBlanc simply ignored pleas from all concerned.

What about Federal Minister of Environment Katherine McKenna? Surely our local MP Sean Fraser was adamant that someone in Ottawa must make certain that the most stringent of reviews would have to be undertaken before any effluent ever entered Pictou Harbour from a pulp mill. Surely she was aware of the utter devastation created at Boar Harbour and the astronomical cost of remediation. Surely, Ms McKenna was an advocate for fresh air, less pollution and an environment geared toward positive health results. Why did she not become more involved, say enough is enough and take a stand?

Governments of the day in essence paid lip service to the seriousness of the problem and must have concluded the risk was worth the votes. No pressure was applied to demand Northern Pulp do a Federal Environmental Assessment under Section 14 of the Canada Environmental Assessment Act. The new treatment plant and the ensuing “Pipe” apparently met all “their” regulations and the “Pipe” became a reality.

Protests and rallies were held with the premise being that the fishermen’s plight, tourism concerns and environmental groups’ worries would have some impact.

Unfortunately as mentioned, the “Pipe” was built, but not without controversy. Tempers did flare and police were involved. A multi-million dollar industry was thrown to the wolves while those proponents of Northern Pulp stated that there was nothing to worry about, “science” indicated clearly that no harm would be done.

Back to J.B. McClick who was preparing for his first year at sea. J.B. hadn’t thought much about the “Pipe”, after all it was not on his radar back in 2019 and things seemed to plateau following 2020; yet fishermen remained on egg shells wondering when or if the worst case scenario would rear its ugly head. Boat Harbour did not reveal its true colours immediately so all needed to remain vigilant and not become too complacent.

Things began quite smoothly for the first two weeks of May 2026 as catches were on par with previous years but during the third week the numbers began to diminish. Fishermen noticed a pungent odour and some discoloration associated with their catches. For J.B. it was disheartening since he had financial obligations and family responsibilities. Had the infamous “Pipe” ultimately become the nemesis of the fishermen, six years later?

J.B. was hoping this was perhaps an anomaly but as days and weeks passed, catches along the Strait decreased and buyers backed off. The season did not improve; in fact, the damage to the industry escalated with a significant loss of wages to all fishermen – J.B. McClick being but one example.

The fishermen were not alone because tourism was now in the cross hairs of government bureaucrats who had no alternative but to close beaches and camp grounds all along the Northumberland Strait. Wes Surrett, who had done his part in 2018-20, was speechless and overcome with disappointment that those in charge during 2018-20, had turned a blind eye.

The sinking of the Titanic can serve as both an analogy and a wakeup call beyond the trials and tribulations of J.B. McClick. In a newspaper article 26 years before the Titanic’s demise, William Thomas Stead predicted a large liner would sink. In his fictional account, there were insufficient lifeboats on board. His words in 1886: “This is exactly what might take place if liners are sent to sea, short of boats.”

Using such a comparison and suggesting Stead was a prognosticator would be an understatement. To further suggest we have among us today similar soothesayers, namely, Ann Baxter, Matt/Dave Gunning and Wes Surrett, predicting a possible catastrophe with the building of the “Pipe” is hardly a stretch.

Anger and disbelief were now evident. Those who aligned themselves with Northern Pulp were quiet, justifying their response by following best practices. There was no turning back the clock for J.B. and his fellow fishermen who now felt overwhelmed, dealing with a feeling of despair for what lay ahead.

Around the globe, the protection of the environment is paramount so why on earth would anyone with an ounce of intelligence and/or vision choose to be so reckless in allowing such a travesty, that is, installing a “Pipe” and then leaving the public open to another Boat Harbour?

The concept presented here is far from extreme. Government officials, management of Northern Pulp and any naysayers need to THINK and THINK HARD; thereby making the “right” decision, that is, placing the environment on the pedestal it deserves and ensuring a life of prosperity for J.B. McClick.

Ken Johnston

Pictou