Minister Shea unsuccessfully defends cancellation of ELA

Yesterday, Acting Fisheries Minister Gale Shea fumbled through questions to explain the unsound decision by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) to cancel its Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) program. Over six months have passed since the announcement that DFO’s ELA facility would be shut down and its team of scientists fired, but Canadians have yet to receive an adequate explanation from DFO justifying this decision.

“It’s time for the people of Canada to hear scientific fact, not political fiction,” asserted Diane Orihel, Director of the Coalition to Save ELA. “The cuts to ELA, including its staff, represent a major loss of scientific capacity within DFO to achieve its strategic outcomes of healthy, aquatic ecosystems and sustainable fisheries and aquaculture.”

Minister Shea responded to questions placed on the Order Paper by MP Robert Chisholm, NDP Fisheries & Oceans Critic. Mr. Chisholm asked what analysis had been done by DFO on the impacts of cancelling its ELA program. In response, Minister Shea stated DFO “is now focusing on work being conducted at other freshwater research facilities across the country, which will more than adequately meet the departmental research needs.” But the ELA is a one-of-a-kind research center, and there are no other DFO freshwater research facilities between the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, where the ELA science team is based, and the west coast of Canada.

“The statement by Minister Shea that other DFO freshwater facilities could fulfill the department’s needs is flat out misleading, as there is no other comparable living laboratory across the country, or in fact, around the world,” explained Orihel. “The ELA is a unique facility. There are no others like it. Period. Full stop,” echoed Dr. Britt Hall, Assistant Professor at the University of Regina.

Furthermore, ELA’s science team at the Freshwater Institute now provides much of DFO’s scientific expertise for assessing the impacts of industry on freshwater ecosystems and their fish populations. On May 17 of this year, all sixteen DFO employees in the ELA section received workforce adjustment letters, and expect to receive surplus letters any day now. Besides the ELA science team, there are less than a handful of DFO scientists at the Freshwater Institute remaining to cover freshwater issues in central Canada.

Scientist Dr. Carol Kelly, who devoted much of her career to carrying out research at ELA, stated emphatically, “ELA is only 0.1% of DFO’s annual budget, but it is 100% of its ability to study the effects of industrial pollutants on real, whole, freshwater ecosystems.”

Robert Chisholm also asked why DFO’s ELA scientists were recently awarded competitive internal grants from DFO on departmental priorities, but at the same time were given workforce adjustment letters stating their services may no longer be required by the department. This year, ELA scientists received close to $200K in new research funds from DFO’s climate change adaptation, ecosystem-based research, and aquatic biotechnology programs. Shea responded that the decision to axe ELA was part of Budget 2012, and DFO was simply proceeding with business-as-usual by awarding grants to scientists conducting research important to the department’s mandate.

Minister Shea clarified in her response that “Fisheries and Oceans Canada is currently gathering information and conducting studies to support either transferring the facility to another operator or decommissioning the site.” Why is DFO disposing of its strongest tool for understanding the threats of industrial development on Canadian aquatic ecosystems and their fish population, as well as a highly qualified science team?

According to Dr. Jules Blais, President of the Society of Canadian Limnologists, the Canadian Government’s cutting of the ELA and other federal science programs “reach beyond basic cost-cutting measures and appear more as targeted strikes against environmental researchers producing results the government considers inconvenient or incompatible with government policy.”

Read more on Minister Shea’s attempt to justify the cancellation of ELA here:

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