Canada’s Drowning Ocean Science

ocean science GSRCanada’s motto, A Mari Usque Ad Mare, reminds Canadians they are surrounded by oceans. Our country’s shoreline is 243,000 kilometres long, the longest in the world.

Natural Resources Canada estimates “about one-third of Canada’s Gross National Product (GNP) is generated by activities that in one way or another use the coastline.” Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) says the Canadian economy is “closely tied to the sea,” with $126 billion economic activity linked to our oceans.

So, ocean science ought to be a high governmental priority—but recent actions indicate otherwise. Canadian ocean science is at risk of drowning amid cutbacks, layoffs, and the muzzling of scientists.


Government ocean science

The DFO’s budget has been slashed  in recent years, jeopardizing critical research and putting our oceans in peril. There is a long list of affected programs—most worrying is the elimination of programs monitoring ocean pollution and developing countermeasures for oil spills (at a time when the federal government wants to increase oil tanker traffic). Key scientists are being laid-off, including “the only experts on contaminants in marine mammals and on marine oil pollution and oil spill countermeasures,” reports one marine science journal.

Environment Canada is laying off most of its toxicologists and risk assessors working in the Atlantic Region, despite the chemical and offshore petroleum issues in this part of the country.

Parks Canada has delivered layoff notices to employees at four national marine conservation areas—unique water habitats—putting fragile ecosystems at risk.

Ten coast guard operations have been cut, affecting the capacity to monitor and deal with marine pollution offences.

The DFO is also closing most of its nine libraries across the country, dividing the remainder of its collection between two locations, Sidney BC and Dartmouth NS. Even though it is brand new, the DFO library in St. Andrew’s NB will be closed. Another library, at the Maurice-Lamontagne Institute, houses 61,000 French language documents and is in close proximity to seven francophone academic institutes and research institutions devoted to ocean science. The library closures represent a barrier for researchers who will now have to travel hundreds of kilometres to access materials not yet digitized by the DFO or ineligible for digitization due to copyright.

Academic ocean science

Academic ocean science has been hurt by cuts at NSERC. The Major Resources Support (MRS) program’s moratorium is jeopardizing world class Canadian ocean science facilities. The Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, a national treasure used by thousands of researchers and students each year, has been left reeling upon the loss of $400K in funding (35% of its budget). Dalhousie University’s Aquatron facility, with the largest and deepest seawater research tanks in North America, is also bracing for budget shortfalls and a reduction in its research capacity.

This is to say nothing of future projects and facilities which would have been funded by the MRS had the program not been cut. For a sense of what this loss of opportunity might mean to Canadian ocean science, consider the following projects which were funded by MRS in the past:

NEPTUNE, deep ocean floor observatory, received $4.3 million in funding between 2007-2010.

VENUS, deep ocean floor observatory, received $2 million in funding between 2007-2010.

The Canadian Scientific Submersible Facility, a remotely operated vehicle integral for deep-sea research, received $1.6 million in funding between 2008-2012.

CCGS Amundsen, a coast guard ship which functions as a floating laboratory and research facility in the Arctic, received $1.1 million in funding between 2009-2012.

Coriollis II, a research vessel based in Rimouski allowing researchers to investigate the St. Lawrence and east coast of Canada, received $52K in 2007.

Muzzling and intimidation of scientists

The Harper Government’s tight control over the communication of controversial research has also extended to ocean science. One biologist at the DFO, Kristi Miller, was barred from speaking with the press about her research on BC’s salmon—even though the research had already been published in the world-leading journal Science. Another scientist, Frederick Kibenge, identified a virus in BC’s salmon stocks and was subsequently threatened with the loss of his lab’s international accreditation and “bullied” by the Canadian government which found his conclusions politically inconvenient and, at the prompting of the government, had his lab’s international accreditation revoked.

Ocean science is important to Canadians. For the good of our economy, our environment, and our safety, we cannot allow Canadian ocean science to be thrown overboard.