The federal government is about to do something it hasn't done much of for years: hire scientists – a lot of them.
At an event scheduled for Wednesday morning in Ottawa, Hunter Tootoo, the Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, is expected to announce that his department is looking to add 135 science-related personnel, The Globe and Mail has learned.
The new hires would boost science staff at the department by about 15 per cent, its largest increase since the seventies and early eighties, when international agreements expanded Canada's exclusive control of its ocean resources out to the 200-nautical-mile limit.
Those hired are to be stationed at existing facilities across the country, beefing up a scientific work force that shrank under previous governments and has been steadily inching toward retirement even while the need to track fish stocks and monitor the impact of climate change on marine ecosystems has grown more urgent.
Money for the new positions will come out of the $197-million in additional funding earmarked for science within Fisheries and Oceans Canada in the latest federal budget. When the funding was announced in March, it was not clear whether any of the money would be used to increase the department's complement of scientists and science support staff.
Years of cutbacks and outdated equipment have made it increasingly difficult for the department to acquire timely and comprehensive information about the status of Canada's oceans and marine life, experts say.
Even 135 new staff members will not be nearly enough to restore the more than 300 science positions that were cut or eliminated by attrition at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in recent years. Yet technology has transformed the way data can be gathered and analyzed from the oceans. By equipping fewer researchers with better equipment and resources, Ottawa stands to dramatically improve its ability to understand what is happening to marine environments within all three of Canada's coastal regions, experts say.
"This level of hiring will almost certainly strengthen the capacity of ministry staff to provide high-quality science advice to decision-makers," Jeff Hutchings, a fisheries scientist and professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said.
Dr. Hutchings added that the anticipated hiring wave would probably produce a generational shift that could reinvigorate the department's research efforts and boost Canada's profile in ocean science, depending on how and where the positions are allocated.
About half of the new jobs are expected to be designated for biologists that are needed to maintain the department's capacity to perform fish stock assessments and other aspects of its core mandate. Another quarter will be for scientists doing cutting-edge basic research, with the remainder taken up by technical staff that support science activities.
The new positions should also improve Canada's research efforts in the Arctic. Conservation groups have noted a need for more federal scientists on Arctic waters and elsewhere, to fulfill a key election campaign promise by the Liberals to set aside 10 per cent of Canada's ocean territory for protection by 2020. The ambitious target would meet international commitments under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity.
While the new science positions at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will not be explicitly linked to any proposed marine protected areas, the expectation is that, with this and future announcements leading up to World Oceans Day on June 8, the government will signal how it plans to move forward with the process of designating specific areas for protection.
"I'm pretty confident they're going to have to build up their staff capacity to implement the marine protected areas commitment, and I'm sure that's part of what the budget increase will support," Sabine Jessen, the Vancouver-based director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society's oceans program, said.
Brett Favaro, a scientist with Memorial University of Newfoundland's Fisheries and Marine Institute in St. John's, said the new federal job opportunities represented a turning point for a field of that has long had little to offer its brightest, young PhDs. "The reality is that doing something like this is going to mean that people stay in Canada who would have left otherwise."
Dr. Favaro added that, with growing pressure on fisheries from increased human activity and climate change, Canada has a greater imperative than ever to retain its top marine scientists.