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One of the lakes used in wetland resevoir project at the Experimental Lakes Area in Northwestern Ontario is shown in an undated photo.HANDOUT/The Canadian Press

Four former senior bureaucrats in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans have written to Prime Minister Stephen Harper asking him to reconsider the withdrawal of funding to a research centre in Northwestern Ontario that has been studying freshwater ecosystems for half a century.

The four men – Burton Ayles, who was regional director-general from 1993 to 1995; Herbert Lawler, who was the regional director-general from 1973 to 1986; Paul Sutherland who was regional director-general from 1986 to 1993; and Rick Josephson who was regional director of fisheries and habitat management from 1981 to 1989 – say they are "deeply disturbed" by the potential closure of the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) field station.

"We believe that you have been ill advised either by political staff with little understanding of federal constitutional responsibilities and with little appreciation of the importance of clean water and viable aquatic ecosystems to the well-being of all Canadians or by federal bureaucrats with a bias towards the management of marine fisheries," they write in their letter.

The massive government budget bill that has been passed by the House of Commons and is now before the Senate cuts about $2-million in annual funding to the research station and the ELA will be closed unless a new operator can be found. Among other things, the station has studied the effects of acid rain, mercury deposits, greenhouse gas emissions, hydroelectric development, climate change and chemical pollution and has provided data about freshwater ecosystems to scientists across Canada and around the world.

The Conservative government says it understands the importance of the work that has been done at the facility but it is now focussing its funding on fisheries and habitat management.

Scientists say the decision was politically motivated, arguing Ottawa is ending its support of the ELA because it was producing data the Conservatives did not want to take into account as they promote the development of Alberta's oil sands.

The former directors in the Fisheries department point out in their letter Friday that the Constitution gives the federal government the primary responsibility for fisheries. They also say the federal Fisheries Act has provided essential protection to marine and freshwater fish habitats.

The budget bill changes the legislation to apply the protections only in cases where the fish are of "economic, cultural or ecological value." That would allow for speedier approval of megaprojects like the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which will have to cross 600 different rivers and streams to bring bitumen from the Alberta oil sands to British Columbia's coast for transport to China and other Asian markets.

The four former bureaucrats say the changes could be disastrous for some freshwater ecosystems. "Many small rivers and lakes throughout the country, particularly in the Arctic, do not currently support fisheries but they are an important part of Canada's fresh water networks," they write. "We urge you to remember that the cumulative effects of many small decisions can be devastating."

In addition, they write, the closure science programs, including the Experimental Lakes Area, will erode research on contaminants and the protection of freshwater habitats.

'As former federal senior managers we understand the need to periodically refocus, reduce or end programs," they write. But "when we managed these programs we were proud that Canada was a world leader in freshwater research and protection of freshwater aquatic ecosystems. The need for environmental protection and the research that supports it has not diminished."

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