Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Feds sink key science program

Experts appalled at impending loss of crucial project

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Layoffs at Winnipeg's federal fisheries office will gut environmental monitoring and kill one of the most unique and successful water research projects in the world.

At least 27 biologists, chemists and other scientists received notice Thursday their jobs are among 400 positions being eliminated across the country at Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

In addition to the scientists at the Fisheries' Freshwater Institute at the University of Manitoba, 13 support staff received layoff notices Thursday.

Among the most heartbreaking cuts for scientists is the Experimental Lakes Area, a 44-year-old program covering 58 small lakes near Kenora, Ont., that scientists use to conduct real-world experiments on entire ecosystems.

"The department will no longer conduct research that requires whole lake or whole ecosystem manipulation. As such the research program at the Experimental Lakes Area will be ceased and the facility will be closed," a DFO spokeswoman wrote in an email.

Research done there has dramatically altered environmental policy across North America, leading to changes in hydro development, a ban on phosphorus in dish soap and action on acid rain.

Over the decades, scientists from around the world have dumped acid, toxic metals, synthetic hormones and other pollutants into the 58 small, remote lakes. The researchers have used the lakes, as one scientist once put it, "the way medical researchers use white mice."

For years, it's been the site of groundbreaking experiments on nutrients and algae blooms, the kind that stifle Lake Winnipeg every summer.

Fisheries scientists who work on the lakes are barred from speaking to the media, but one independent researcher called the decision to kill the ELA "a travesty."

"This isn't a Canadian jewel. It truly is an international jewel," said University of Alberta biologist Vincent St. Louis, who began his career as an undergraduate at the ELA and just returned from a research visit two weeks ago.

"Everyone in Canada should value the research being done at the experimental lakes regardless of political tendency, because everyone values clean drinking water, nice lakes to swim in, fishing."

Frances Pick of the University of Ottawa said the experimental lakes "put Canadian water science and environmental science in textbooks."

It costs $2 million a year to operate the ELA and staff it with about 20 core Fisheries scientists. Many more independent researchers also work on lake projects. There is slim hope a university, provincial government or other funder will step in to save the project, but Fisheries researchers who spoke on condition of anonymity say that's unlikely. The research is expected to wind down this fall.

Also on the chopping block is Winnipeg-based research related to the federal Species at Risk Act and the effect of pesticides on fish.

Coincidentally, the Manitoba government is considering a ban on cosmetic pesticides, in part to protect human health and natural habitats.

And, one of Manitoba's best-known fish, the sturgeon, is so threatened it may be listed under the Species at Risk Act. Fisheries staff was expected to make a decision later this year or early next.

One local Fisheries staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the cuts mean environmental protection will be severely compromised.

Local staff was involved in environmental permitting across Western Canada, evaluating everything from Manitoba Hydro dams to northern diamond mines to oilsands projects.

The job cuts, plus changes to environmental legislation, will mean business interests will "run roughshod" over habitat and species protection, and there will be far less scrutiny of projects that could damage waterways, the employee said.

In August 2008, reporter Bartley Kives and photographer Mike Aporius spent two days at the Experimental Lakes area and produced these videos:

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2012 0

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