Closing Experimental Lakes Area a huge mistake, says NOAA prez

Tom Sasvari

The Recorder

EVANSVILLE—A decision by the federal government to close the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) (a collection of 58 lakes near Kenora, that has provided global freshwater lake research), is a huge mistake, says the president of the Northern Ontario Aquaculture Association (NOAA).

“People I’ve worked with have been nervous about this for a long time, concerned that this very important research component was going to be downsized or shut down, and I think this is a huge, huge mistake,” stated Mike Meeker last Friday. “The bottom line is the ELA has been very important to us directly. We’ve done some very important research, and we fully intended to do a lot more research up there in the future.”

Mr. Meeker’s comments come as the federal government announced last week it is shutting down what supporters say is a scientific “jewel” in Northern Ontario that has put Canada at the forefront of global freshwater lake research. The federal fisheries department made the announcement on Thursday of last week.

Employee unions said this was a fragment of the more than 1,000 notices sent Thursday to Fisheries and Oceans and Canadian Coast Guard employees about imminent layoffs. Separately, a spokesperson for the department said more than $79 million is expected to be saved through cuts to internal operations and administration.

The open-air research facility nestled in the Precambrian Shield is the highest profile of those cuts. From acid rain to mercury levels to climate change and the effects of household phosphates on freshwater ecosystems, the chain of lakes has seen them all, and often been the site of world-leading breakthroughs in science, the Toronto Star reported in its May 17, 2012 edition.

“In our scientific community it’s an international jewel,” Yves Prairie, a professor in the biology department at l’Universite du Quebec a Montreal, told the Star. He said this is where some of the most significant advances in our science have occurred in the last 40 years, calling it incredible the government would shut it down given the international stature it has and the importance for the field.

“The bottom line is, the ELA has been very important to us and many other groups and organizations,” said Mr. Meeker. “We’ve done some of our most important and needed research work through the ELA.”

“The NOAA has done world class baseline study and laboratory work and results through the ELA,” he continued. “We were able to work with and do research with key scientists in the world. And the work done there provided for example important research for the DFO, and for us, in actual fish cage sites.”

The announcement was made at the same time federal lawmakers debate a controversial budget bill that eases rules on environmental assessments, removes protection for fish and wildlife and scraps agencies like the National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy, an independent panel struck to help Ottawa balance environmental protection with economic growth.

Before the ELA was created, biologists studying freshwater lakes and ecosystems were forced to collect water in containers and truck it back to the lab for tests and experiments with less than reliable results.

After the Ontario government deeded the area to the federal government in the late 1960s, scientists were able to manipulate whole lakes to study some of the most pressing water issues of the day.

Since then, it has drawn some of the top scientists into freshwater ecosystems from Canada, the United States and around the world.

In announcing the closure, the government said such work is now better carried out by universities and non-governmental organizations.

Scientists have indicated the work completed at the chain of lakes in Northern Ontario has always been timely and critical to the issues of the day.

Mr. Prairie, who is vice-president of the Society of Canadian Limnologists, told the Star that freshwater scientists were studying the effects of acid rain in the 1980s, the same time that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was negotiating his famous Acid Rain Treaty with US Presidents Ronald Reagan and his successor, George W. Bush.

In another landmark experiment in the 1970s, researchers divided up a lake into two parts to study the effects of phosphates on the water, assuming that they were behind the phenomenon of oxygen-depriving blue-green algae, the Star reported. Mr. Prairie pointed out the study provided beyond any reasonable doubt that phosphorous was the culprit.

“Closing the ELA is a big, big mistake, that facility had about 100 plus research project going on at any time, world-class scientists and research being carried out, which is all very all very important, relevant ongoing information,” said Mr. Meeker. “The research done involving aquaculture was huge to us, but is just one of hundreds of very important projects, all as important as the other for the industry and the public. It is a real shame it is being closed down.”

Mr. Meeker noted, “I sincerely hope the scientists will work someplace else, doing the same type of research. And with all the concerns worldwide with environment, moving forward the ELA would have been even more important as far as research goes for the next 30 or more years,” he said. “Losing this facility is a tragedy, it is needed now more than ever before. Some of the best research in Canada and the world was being done and would have continued and expanded in the future.”