Experimental Lakes Area
The federal government announced that it will terminate funding for the Experimental Lakes Area to generate savings of about $3 million as part of the broader budget constraints on the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. Canadian and international scientists have denounced the move.
In addition, post-secondary research and funding for five laboratories will also lose funding, along with 55 jobs, including those of leading researchers. Scientists have claimed that with these accompanying cuts, there is no current prospect of a university or third party operator who will be able to take over the full operations of the ELA facility.
One of Canada’s most important research facilities, and a world-class environmental “living laboratory” on the effects of pollutants, is about to be axed.
Following a May 17 announcement, the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) is about to join the growing list of scientific research and environmental research initiatives and study facilities that will lose federal funding.
Scientific research has been ongoing in the ELA since 1967 on the effects of aquaculture, petrochemical industries, agribusiness and other chemical producers on lake ecosystems. Its groundbreaking research on the effects of acid rain, toxic pollutants, mercury, phosphate and climate change on clean water has informed global policy on the protection of water and freshwater habitats.
Despite an impressive track record, it is the victim of a shift of focus towards commercial and recreational research areas. The government argues that the ELA's work does not fit into new priorities of protecting fish stocks and important habitats.
But in a letter to Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, the President of the Canadian Society of Limnologists, Jules Blais, called the ELA funding cuts “palpable nonsense.”
Scientists speak out
The 17 scientists working at the ELA are subject to a government-wide prohibition on scientists speaking directly to the media.
But Peter Ross, a leading Canadian researcher on the impact of chemicals on marine mammals, has ignored the government ban and has denounced the move, telling the Montreal daily La Presse that Canada is losing its position as the leading supporter of research on freshwater and oceans in the world. Ross predicts he will be out of a job by November 1, 2012.
On May 21, 2012, Cynthia Gilmour, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Centre, wrote to Minister Ashfield and Environment Minister Peter Kent, asking for the ELA closure to be reconsidered.
On May 30, a group of Israeli scientists from the Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research institute wrote to the Canadian ambassador in Israel to condemn the closing of the ELA. "By shutting down the ELA facility, the Government of Canada is stamping out the ability of the world scientific community to conduct the research required to formulate sound environmental policies," wrote Dr. Assaf Sukenik, who was quoted in the Winnipeg Free Press.
On June 22, former regional directors of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans addressed an open letter to PM Harper and Minister Ashfield, saying that the closure of the ELA, along with several other government policy changes, will erode crucial research on environmental protection.
So far, more than 20 open letters have been addressed by renowned scientists from Canada and around the world to express their strong concern over the closure of the ELA and demand a reconsideration of the decision.
A Coalition to Save the ELA has formed, explaining on its website the importance of the ELA and proposing a petition for citizens to sign.
David Schindler, a leading scientist from the University of Alberta who directed the ELA for over 20 years, deplored that “we are losing an opportunity to improve the public's scientific literacy on water,” and adding that “democracy, to be effective, needs to have an informed electorate.”
No successor in sight
The ELA is operated by Fisheries and Oceans Canada from its Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, Canada, and research is conducted jointly by researchers from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and variety of partner organizations.
The government claims that "potentially interested parties" have been contacted as new operators to take over in 2013.
However, Blais, President of the Canadian Society of Limnologists, counters that the accompanying cuts to post-secondary research will make it impossible for a university to take over the research centre.
The Harper government has allotted $1.4 million to priority areas for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to address pollution control, which represents only a small fraction of the previous $12 million reportedly dedicated to this area. The cuts are part of the 2012 budget cuts announced following omnibus Bill C-38, which also brings changes to the Fisheries Act, the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Species at Risk Act, the Coasting Trade Act, and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. About $79 million will be slashed from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans over the next 3 years.
The closing of the ELA will generate between $2 million and $3 million in savings per year.
- 1967: Data recording begins at the ELA.
- 1968: The ELA becomes a research facility.
- 1970s-1980s: The ELA conducted experiments to understand which nutrients lead to the deterioration of water and fisheries quality. As a result of these groundbreaking results, Canada became the first country to ban the use of phosphate in laundry detergent in 2008, and then from dishwasher soap in 2011.
- 1970s-1980s: Starting in 1976 and 1982, the ELA tested the effects of acid rain and found that it dramatically reduces biodiversity in lakes. But what was even more striking and ran counter to general scientific opinion at the time, is that the damage from acid rain was reversible. They were able to discover this because after every experiment, the lakes must return to their natural state, which informs us on the natural recovery of the environment.
- 1990s: The ELA simulated the creation of reservoirs as is typical of hydroelectric projects. It found that the process increased the level of greenhouse gases and of methyl mercury in fish, which is dangerous for human consumption. The experiment has subsequently informed policies for the design of dam projects.
- 2000s: The METAALICUS (Mercury Experiment To Assess Atmospheric Loading In Canada and the United States) project and EDC (Hormone Mimic) project have led to groundbreaking results on the impact of mercury and hormones on fish.
- May 17, 2012: The Harper government announces that funding for the ELA will be cut.
- May 2012: The Coalition to Save the ELA is formed and over 20 open letters from Canadian and world scientists are addressed to the Canadian government expressing concern over the closure of the ELA.
Role or Position
The Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) is a unique environmental "laboratory" containing 58 lakes in a remote area of North Western Ontario. The ELA has more than 30 years of hydrological, meteorological, chemical and biological records. These data help to assess the potential impact of climate change on the ecology of Canadian Shield lakes and permit testing of “whole lake” impacts of pollutants on fish, aquatic life and freshwater lake ecosystems.
Implications and Consequences
- Democracy: Without good data and research on key environmental areas, such as Canada's freshwater lakes, Canadians will be less able to hold the government to account for the regulation of commercial, recreational, and industrial activities that have an impact on the environment.
- Free speech: Although Canadian government scientists are employees and subject to obligations of loyalty and confidentiality, they are also researchers who should be entitled to speak out without fear of reprisal when government decisions endanger fragile habitats and ecosystems, or put an end to world class research programs that are unique and have had long-term tangible research results.
- Knowledge: The decision to defund and close the ELA facility appears to fall into a broader pattern of disregard for scientific research and study of the environmental effects of pollutants. This considerably harms the capacity of formulating policy based on scientific evidence. The government denies this charge.
- Transparency: The defunding of the ELA is one of the various reductions contained in the 2012 federal budget. There have been complaints about the secrecy in which the government is undertaking such cuts and the lack of information about their impact. The case for more transparency has been made by the Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page, a non-partisan public servant who has faced considerable hurdles in obtaining information on the impact of cuts and of omnibus bills.
Date published: 30 June 2012
Date updated: 22 October 2012
Photo from the Experimental Lakes Area.