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ocean sciences

Is it important that Canadians know the level of hydrocarbons in sediment off the West Coast of Vancouver Island? Or the amount of polychlorinated biphenyls found in the fat of killer whales in southern Georgia Strait?

Apparently not, according to the federal government. Ottawa is shutting down a section of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans responsible for monitoring such marine pollution issues.

The unit, which is comprised of about 55 chemists, technicians and research scientists nationally, is being phased out as part of the government's ongoing austerity drive.

It might seem like good politics to close a branch that few voters know about and that publishes its findings under such arcane titles as: PCB-Associated Changes in mRNA Expression in Killer Whales.

But the move may come back to haunt Canada, because it terminates a group that has been providing important early warning signals on the health of our oceans.

On the West Coast, the closing of the unit means the government will no longer have the services of Peter Ross, a research scientist at the Institute of Ocean Sciences who has been doing groundbreaking work.

He was part of a team that several years ago published a paper that showed killer whales in the northeastern Pacific are among the world's most contaminated marine mammals.

The researchers collected blubber biopsies from 35 killer whales and determined just how badly polluted they were with PCBs.

"These results provide a stark reminder of the lingering health risks associated with persistent and bio-accumulative contaminants," states the paper, which Dr. Ross updated just last year.

That kind of knowledge allows government to draft policies designed to reduce pollutants at source.

Dr. Ross has also been gathering data on the presence of hydrocarbons in bottom sediments on the West Coast, and last year warned that a close watch had to be kept on the levels, saying "sea otters are vulnerable to hydrocarbon contamination even in the absence of catastrophic oil spills."

Other work has allowed Dr. Ross to flag the presence of flame retardants in the marine environment, with his data showing the level of chemicals doubling in seals every three years.

So Dr. Ross has his finger on the pulse of some important things in the environment.

Or at least he did. This week, he is sitting in his office wondering about his future, as he awaits a final letter from the DFO telling him he is redundant.

He admits it is a trying time. At 49, he finds himself in charge of a lab that took him 15 years to develop, but which the government no longer values.

"If I was a bit younger I'd say, oh, I'll go to Australia. If I was a bit older, I might go for early retirement," he said with a laugh.

He is looking at a lot of options, but hopes somehow to stay in B.C., looking out for the health of the sea.

Dr. Ross said he frequently had to deliver "bad news" with his research publications, but he always felt his work was presenting the government with opportunities, not problems.

"Because at the end of the day every bad-news story means we've done science, we've done the research, we have facts from which we can develop [policies]," he said. "People don't like bad news but I always argue, you know, what is the world we want to create? Look at what we can do if we act on some of these things that science is alerting us to. I mean if we hadn't banned DDT in the 1970s we wouldn't have raptors or sea birds left, and maybe marine mammals would be in a lot of trouble here too."

The DDT ban came about because scientists warned that chemical pollutants had made eggshells so thin birds weren't hatching. Governments stepped in with policy changes that saved the day.

The current government, however, is blinding itself to such advance warnings.

"I am a little apprehensive that we are turning off the radar on files that may not be important to everybody, but which are certainly important to marine mammals, sea birds, salmon and coastal people," Dr. Ross said.

He's not the only one who should be worried.