Scientists lobby to keep Experimental Lakes Area station

Scientists angered by the shutdown of a world-renowned freshwater research station denounced the federal government's decision Tuesday in Winnipeg.
Scientists and politicians gather in Winnipeg, near the Assiniboine River behind the Manitoba legislature, on Tuesday to urge Ottawa to keep the Experimental Lakes Area freshwater research station. (Claudine Richard-Beaudoin/CBC)

Scientists angered by the shutdown of a world-renowned freshwater research station denounced the federal government's decision Tuesday in Winnipeg.

They gathered near the Assiniboine River, behind the Manitoba legislature, to demand that Ottawa reverse the cut to the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) near Kenora, Ont.

Last month, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced the closure as part of its omnibus budget bill.

The scientists — members from the Coalition to Save ELA — were joined by Gord Mackintosh, Manitoba's conservation and water stewardship minister, and Manitoba's Liberal Party Leader Jon Gerrard to jointly release an open letter to the federal government.

Ian Davies, a scientist who worked at the station for 23 years, said closing the station is a huge mistake.

"I think it's atrocious. I think that we're losing a resource which we can never get back," he said.

"Once the scientists are dispersed it'll just be like the Avro Arrow — they'll go somewhere else and we'll never be able to reconstruct this again."

Politicians need good science to make good policies, Davies added, saying the science conducted at the station is internationally recognized and cutting it will endanger freshwater science and policy making.

"Canada enjoyed an incredibly good reputation. We were at the forefront of freshwater ecological work," he said.

"This could put us in a backwater."

Read Quirks& Quarks host Bob McDonald's blog post on the ELA closure.

Gerrard compared the ELA to the Hubble telescope in its scope of aiding scientists' research. In the case of the ELA, the facility has helped advance global knowledge of lakes and pollution.

Manitoba MP Pat Martin, whose riding includes many of the people who will lose their jobs, said the cuts to the ELA don't make any financial sense.

"Right within the incorporation acts of this institute is the obligation [that] if it's ever shut down, the 58 lakes have to be completely remediated back to their original state," he said.

"The cost of that remediation far, far, far exceeds the operating cost of this invaluable organization."

Internationally known

The ELA, a series of 58 lakes, is considered to be one of Canada's most important aquatic research areas.

Started in 1968, the ELA is also internationally known for research into everything from acid rain, to climate change to fish farming — essentially, all the ways human activity can affect freshwater systems.

But the facility, located in northwestern Ontario and administered out of the Freshwater Institute in Winnipeg, is being closed at the end of the fiscal year, March 2013.

Dave Gillis, a spokesman for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said the cut to the ELA is purely a budgetary matter and has nothing to do with the quality of the work that has been done there.

Gillis said he hopes private researchers or universities will take over the facility.

"It's very much our preferred option that ELA continue, but under the auspices of another organization," Gillis told CBC News.

"Universities may have an interest, we feel, in going forward with the facility. We're not ruling anyone out."

Gillis said he expects to see plenty of interest in keeping the ELA going.