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Marine researcher joins Vancouver Aquarium two years after losing federal funding

Former federal scientist Peter Ross says the Harper government’s ideological approach to science is doing damage that will last for decades.

Matt Meuse/The Globe and Mail

A former government scientist whose marine toxicology program was shut down in 2012 has found a new home for his work at the Vancouver Aquarium.

Peter Ross, a leading expert on the effects of ocean pollution on killer whales and other marine mammals, found himself out of a job when the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) cut funding to his Sidney, B.C.-based lab. On Tuesday, the Vancouver Aquarium announced the creation of a new ocean pollution science program, headed by Dr. Ross, where he will continue some of the work he was doing with the DFO.

"[We're going to be] looking at everything from the health of top-of-the-food-chain marine mammals and seabirds to the commercial and recreational targets of our fisheries," Dr. Ross said. "That kind of research will better allow us to prioritize which pollutants we're most worried about ... [and] allow [policy-makers] to make decisions that would mitigate and protect the ocean from those concerns."

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Building on Dr. Ross's previous work, the new program will investigate the sources and effects of various pollutants and toxins on marine life, and the potential effects on industry and human health. Marine mammals are a good tool for this, Dr. Ross says, because they essentially collect samples of the ocean and its food web for him through their diet. Work will begin immediately, and the aquarium expects the new lab to be completed within six months.

John Nightingale, CEO of the Vancouver Aquarium, said the program arose as a means of continuing work the federal government was no longer willing to fund.

"When it became clear the DFO was going to shut down their marine toxicology and contaminants program, we said to ourselves, we can't imagine the West Coast not having the capacity to analyze pollution and contaminants in [ocean] animals, and to understand what it means," Dr. Nightingale said.

The DFO did not make anyone available for comment but provided an e-mailed statement with some details on the department's new system.

The department cut its entire contaminants research program nationwide in May, 2012, laying off 55 scientists and other staff across the country and closing labs in Winnipeg; Rimouski, Que.; St. Andrews, N.B.; and Dartmouth, N.S., in addition to Dr. Ross's Vancouver Island lab. In January, 2013, the program was replaced with a five-person advisory group, members of which are stationed across Canada. The government says it saved $12-million a year by doing this.

Dr. Ross, an outspoken critic of the federal government's science policies, doesn't deny his work is expensive – a single whale biopsy costs $2,000. But in November, 2013, Dr. Ross told CiTR Radio he believed his department's closing was at least in part because the government didn't want to hear more bad news about ocean pollution and its consequences for the petroleum and fishery industries.

"This government just doesn't want to hear about science. They don't want facts, they don't want advice – they want to manage on the basis of their beliefs," he told CiTR. "With the legislative changes and the wholesale termination of a lot of programs, [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper has done damage that's going to last decades."

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Now, almost two years after that closing, Dr. Ross is optimistic about continuing his work in the semi-private sector – work he says is critical for Canada, given its reliance on water and oceans for economic livelihood.

"The closure of the DFO operation created a gap in [scientific] capacity in Canada," Dr. Ross said. "It created, in my view, an opportunity for the aquarium to step up to the plate, and I'm delighted that they actually did."

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