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Preview: Freshwater Scientists Go to the Mattresses: The Political Fight to Save Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area (The first section in my completed Master’s research project)

Visiting scientist and PhD candidate Diane Orihel pored over data samples from a long-term algae study on Lake 227. It was the Thursday morning before the Victoria Day long weekend in 2012. The samples came from one of 58 lakes that comprise the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), a federally funded freshwater research station 300 kilometers east of Winnipeg in Ontario and 50 kilometers southeast of the Lake of the Woods watershed. The precocious aquatic ecologist and a team of scientists were studying the factors that contribute to the excessive growth of blue-green algae in lakes, such as Lake Winnipeg, Lake Erie and Lake Simcoe. In the summer 2011, the largest blue-green algae in recorded history invaded Lake Erie. It covered one-sixth of the surface. The bloom spread from Toledo, Ohio to Cleveland and reached the Lake Ontario shore. Algae spread over 20 kilometres. It went as deep as 60 feet in Erie’s central basin. Known as eutrophication, the blooming algae is currently the biggest water pollution problem countries worldwide face.

Original tests done at ELA in the late 1960s revealed quantities of the nutrient phosphorous seeping into lakes in sewage effluents caused the runaway growth of algae in North American lakes. Scientists now know that phosphorous has built up in the sediment at the bottom of lakes, which gets cycled back through the water. Researchers think that could be what still causes the excessive growth worldwide.

What Orihel was trying to understand on that early spring morning in an office on the fourth floor of the Freshwater Institute’s building on the University of Manitoba campus, was why some lakes absorb the phosphorous nutrient more readily than others.

Outside the building, after a typically harsh winter, spring had arrived. The morning air was brisk, but the warm sun promised milder temperatures – ideal weather for fieldwork.

Earlier in the morning, the aquatic ecologist had been on the way to her office, when she bumped into government scientists on the staircase who worked at ELA on a permanent basis. “Hi there, guys,” she said cordially, but instantly noticed tension as they walked hastily down the stairs. One scientist, she said, stopped long enough to tell her that half an hour ago they had been called to an “emergency” meeting with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO). Seventeen freshwater scientists, chemists, biologists and technicians were headed to a teleconference where they would connect with DFO’s regional director of science Michelle Wheatley. It was what Orihel called a “closed door meeting. Other people weren’t allowed.”

Perplexed, Orihel went to her office and got to work. Immediately after the meeting, an ELA scientist approached her. He told her what happened. “I was told the ELA was to be shutdown. There would be no new research, and they were all getting workforce adjustment letters,” she said. “They weren’t allowed to speak to the media about it – the news was to stay in the room.”

Nestled in a vast wilderness of boreal forest in northwestern Ontario in the Precambrian Shield, the Experimental Lakes Area is exactly what its name suggests. It is a group of 58 pristine lakes with a research station onsite. It provides freshwater scientists the capacity to carry out what is considered the most “confirming” scientific experiments available, because the site is a natural laboratory – a series of lakes themselves. Past research at the ELA has provided groundbreaking data in the science of freshwater ecosystems worldwide. It has influenced public policy in North America for 45 years.

Known as the facility to conduct “extreme science” – the manipulation of whole-lake ecosystems – the ELA provides on-site living and work facilities and support for researchers. It consists of approximately 20 buildings – laboratories, a workshop, kitchen and dining hall, dormitories and living quarters – in the sparsely populated area relatively unaffected by human and industrial activities. Scientists who use the station can stay for an extended period of time and monitor the physical, chemical and biological processes that occur in the lakes and interactions within a natural ecosystem.

Two types of research are done at ELA. Permanent scientists work at the Freshwater Institute and do work during the year. Those scientists look at what are called long-term ecological monitoring programs, and study the effect of industrial pollutants – mercury, estrogen from birth control pills, sulphuric and nitric acid, nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorous, carbon – on lakes over multiple years and often decades. Another form of research involves scientists who apply to use a whole lake to conduct experiments in line with DFO’s mandate that covers freshwater research. Over the years, several hundreds of scientists have come from all over the world to do research at the site.

For months prior to DFO’s announcement, employees working in federal science departments across Canada braced for widespread cutbacks in the name of balancing the federal budget by 2015. But the decision to cut ELA came seemingly out of nowhere. DFO officials quietly informed the scientists that the $2 million given to the station each year would no longer come from the federal government. In its decision, according to a press release from the Society of Canadian Limnologists on the same day, the federal government said whole-lake manipulative experiments are “better carried out by universities and NGOs. ” This was the decision despite a DFO mandate to manage projects that studied freshwater in Canada.

“This closure, if it proceeds, will mark a significant setback for scientific research in Canada, North America, and the world, and will significantly impede the ability of scientists to understand the impacts of anthropogenic impacts on aquatic environments by eliminating one of the only facilities in the world where whole-ecosystem experiments can be conducted, ” the press release said.
President of the Society of Canadian Limnologists Jules Blais said the announcement shocked the freshwater community. For the past four decades, the Experimental Lakes Area’s existence had constantly been in question with the federal government threatening to close it on four different occasions. But in 2010, research activity was up to levels not seen since 2008.

In fact, total onsite research activity from April to November 2010 was more than 5,000 person-days and involved approximately 140 different researchers representing nine different universities, six government agencies and two private companies. Additionally that year, the government invested millions of dollars in a new fish lab that completed in March 2011.

“We kind of thought that the days of wondering what will happen to the ELA were over. The government had invested so much in infrastructure: weather stations and permanent buildings to accommodate fisheries research,” Blais said.

“There are so many interactions going on between the different components of the ecosystem that you cannot reproduce what happens out in the environment in the laboratory,” Blais explained. Elaborating on the point, he said whole-lake ecosystem experiments are absolutely critical to figuring out how the environment responds to human impacts. When acid rain was a big issue in the 1970s, experiments at ELA revealed why important fish species died off in acidified lakes. “We were anticipating that fish populations would be able to withstand inputs of acidity based on lab experiments. What we found was when whole lakes were acidified the things the fish were relying on for food was disappearing. Fish such as lake trout starved to death. There was no way to anticipate that from lab experiments because you can’t capture all the components of a food web and all the different components of the ecosystem in a lab.”

Retired American biogeochemist Gregg Brunskill spent his early years at the Experimental Lakes Area after he earned a PhD in the same field from Cornell University in 1966. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said on the phone from Australia. “The equivalent would be saying they decided to disband the United Nations. In the scientific world, the ELA is an international banner of success, and to have an idiot politician shut it down is inconceivable.”

On that Thursday morning, to Orihel’s ears the news wasn’t entirely unexpected. In 2011, her thesis supervisor at the University of Alberta – the revered freshwater scientist David Schindler – had called her into his office. He told her to keep her eyes open for an announcement about ELA. “Schindler said to me: ‘Diane, I’m afraid Harper is going to shutdown ELA. I want you to tell me as soon as you hear anything,’” she said.

Schindler answered the phone for an interview on an early June morning in Edmonton. His voice is deep – a Minnesota drawl. “It’s a good morning to do an interview,” he said. “It’s raining here.”

Schindler explained that he had been expecting the announcement. As a leading environmental scientist in Canada, with groundbreaking scientific discoveries under his belt since the 1960s, Schindler has done studies on how the Alberta oil sands severely pollute nearby lakes and rivers and significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. He has published the findings in leading international research journals, such as Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. In 2010, for example, Schindler wrote about the toxins from the oil sands pouring into the Athabasca River and its tributaries. “There are some people who think that eliminating ELA is Harper’s personal vendetta against me for embarrassing them in the oil sands, and a few other issues like that,” revealed Schindler, although he said he didn’t believe that is actually the case. “They know very well why they’ve suddenly had to upgrade the monitoring of the oil sands and why they’re having such a bad reputation worldwide,” Schindler said, referring to the federal-provincial joint oil sands environmental monitoring plan launched in February 2012. “In the papers that we put out, we publish in very high-profile international journals that are widely reviewed by international media.” The same year, the EU debated whether to issue a Fuel Quality Directive that would label the oil sands product 22 per cent more polluting than conventional oil and ban the oil from trade with the EU.

A vendetta against Schindler isn’t impossible considering he was ELA’s first director in the 1960s and has been a loyal advocate for the facility since leaving in the late 1970s. Stephen Harper’s hatred for opponents is widely known in Ottawa. His office is known to have an “enemy list.” In his revealing book Harperland: The Politics of Control, Globe and Mail journalist Lawrence Martin extensively documents the Prime Minister’s obsessive micromanaging tendencies as well as his “mean streak” and mission to obliterate opponents, particularly the Liberal Party. “He hates the Liberal Party so much that it is a driving force – it is what drives him,” said Martin in a 2010 interview with television host Allan Gregg on TVO. “He wants to destroy the Liberal Party. Stephen Harper’s priority is not better policy for Canada. It’s destroying the opposition.”

Schindler believes the cut to ELA’s funding stem from a more mundane explanation. In 1967, the federal government established the Experimental Lakes Area as a temporary research station with one mandate – to investigate the runaway growth of algae in the Great Lakes. It was believed at the time that because algae invaded parts of the lakes along the areas most populated with people, the cause was human. So scientists had to determine which variable caused the growth. Some years later, once Schindler, who worked at the ELA as a junior scientist, discovered phosphates from detergents and soaps contributed to the outbreak of excessive algal growth, federal bureaucrats considered the ELA’s mission over. They decided to close the facility. Schindler explained ELA had conducted good scientific research because senior scientists ran the station and understood the key environmental issues of the day. As a result, the Fisheries Research Board of Canada (FRBC), a crown corporation run by a group of senior scientists, provided necessary funding to discover what caused the environmental issues. But in 1973, management moved out of the hands of the scientist with the FRBC, reducing it to an advisory board. ELA was left in the hands of DFO bureaucrats. “One of the big problems with the ELA is that it was set up as a non-civil service organization,” explained Schindler. “Back when ELA was formed, and its vision was had, it was funded by the FRBC, a board of eminent scientists – they chose what projects got funded.” Later in 1979, DFO was split into separate departments, Department of Environment and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. The FRBC lost its role as the main decision maker in what were considered the important science issues to fund. In his personal history of the lakes, Schindler wrote the move was “unquestionably one of the biggest blunders in the history of Canadian environmental science … Instead of answering to a panel of the country’s most eminent scientists, we now reported to politicians and bureaucrats.” Its primary focus became marine issues rather than freshwater ones, and the station gradually lost its status.

“It was split in an artificial ways. To this day, Fisheries is responsible for fish. All other components are the responsibility of the Environment,” he said. For example, if scientists wanted to look at a topic on freshwater invertebrates and use the Experimental Lakes Area station, the research had to be disguised as work on fish habitat in order to fall under the DFO mandate. “It’s incredible,” Schindler exclaimed. “They don’t seem to realize at the political level that it is one ecosystem. What happens to the fish has consequences in other parts and vice versa.”

In the 1970s and 1980s, Schindler said, responsibility over the environment was delegated to the provinces. “We were told: ‘you shouldn’t work on that problem it’s now a provincial responsibility’ … Feds used that as an excuse to try to close ELA, which happened several times.” By then, he had lost patience dealing with bureaucrats and went to work for the University of Alberta in Edmonton in 1989.

There were additional problems. As science at the Experimental Lakes Area now encompassed two federal department mandates, the station fell through the cracks at DFO, as it was not recognized as important work. Then in the 1990s, six Canadian populations of Atlantic cod collapsed to the point where the federal government imposed a moratorium on fishing. Research on what caused the collapse off Labrador and northeastern Newfoundland drained DFO’s financial resources, Schindler said. It led ELA and inland science issues to slide further down the ladder of priorities. Another factor was that bureaucrats who only had a superficial knowledge of science managed the department, he said. They had no idea of the utility of the program, the importance of the science and the consequences of not conducting freshwater research. “I think that’s still the case in 2012,” said Schindler. “DFO decided it needed to cut funding and simply looked at the list of priorities – ELA wasn’t there.”

The last time the federal government threatened to close ELA, the Liberals were in charge. This time, however, the scientists bit back.

The conflict between natural biology verses applied science is part of an old story that dates back decades, said Carleton University political science professor Scott Bennett. In some ways, he said, politicians have become dazzled by a more recent trend in scientific technology. “The more natural or ecological oriented scientific programs once supported by government are the victim of fascination with ‘sexier’ and more recent trend in scientific thought/technology,” Bennett explained. “Politicians are just as prone to fascination with trends and more novel approaches as anyone else.”

… To be continued …

This is a section in my Major Research Project which I aim to get published elsewhere at a later date. All rights reserved. Robin Grant.

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