Funding cuts cripple freshwater research

It’s strangely quiet at the Experimental Lakes Area.

For the last 44 years, the coming of spring has heralded the beginning of the research season at the natural outdoor laboratory in northern Ontario. Scientists, students and technicians start building docks, moving into the cabins scattered among the site and bringing sampling equipment out of winter storage. But this year, as the ice recedes from the 58 lakes that make up the internationally renowned research facility, activity is winding down rather than gearing up.

In a move that triggered shock and criticism from scientists around the world, federal funding for the Experimental Lakes Area was halted on March 31 and the future of the site remains uncertain.

Workers remove rainbow trout from a cage as part of a study to determine the impacts of commercial cage aquaculture on lakes.

“I think it’s virtually insane for the government to be saying that they don’t need the science that ELA does,” said John Shearer, former senior biologist and operations manager of the freshwater research site. “Not only does Canada need it, but most countries in the world need it.”

The government announced in May 2012 that it would cease site funding within a year as part of budget cuts being made across the board. Since then, the government has been in talks with outside parties who may be able to take over the site, including the Winnipeg-based International Institute for Sustained Development, but the status of these discussions remains unclear and research at the site has now been mothballed. Cabins have been gutted and researchers on two key projects have been told they are not allowed to work on their projects this season.

“We’ve been telling the government from the beginning that they didn’t give themselves enough time to negotiate a transfer,” said Britt Hall, a biology professor at University of Regina who was on one of the research teams that was told it was no longer permitted to do research on the site. “We’ve always known there wouldn’t be a deal done by the end of March.”

Hall and Shearer are among the many Canadian researchers to join the Save ELA coalition — a group that’s been advocating for continued funding to the site for almost a year. These researchers and many others are trying to raise the awareness of how important whole-lake experimentation and long-term monitoring coming out of the Experimental Lakes Area are for the scientific community, policy makers and the general public.

An evidence-filled legacy

Some of the researchers, such as Shearer, have been involved with the Experimental Lakes Area since it was founded in 1968 in order to study nutrient pollution in lakes. At the time the issue was a “political hot potato” because of massive algae growth in Lake Erie, Shearer said.

By 1969, an international team of researchers began adding various amounts of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous to some of the small lakes that made up the newly founded research facility. Back then, there was debate about whether phosphorous or carbon was the major cause of algal blooms, which meant there was no legislation in place to combat the blooms since policy makers didn’t know which nutrients needed to be controlled. But Experimental Lakes Area research showed that algal blooms were not a problem in lakes when carbon and nitrogen were added year after year. The blue-green blooms only appeared in lakes where phosphorous was added.

An ELA researcher measures algae growth in a lake. SCUBA is used frequently at the ELA to observe what is happening beneath the surface and to sample underwater habitats.

The results spurred policy makers in Canada, the United States and most European countries to prevent the sale of laundry detergents containing phosphates.

“That never would have happened had the Experimental Lakes Area not existed,” Shearer said.

The success of the nutrient pollution experiment encouraged David Schindler, the scientist in charge of the facility at the time, to look at other issues affecting freshwater from a whole-lake perspective. The first item on his bucket list was acid rain.

Previous research in laboratories had shown that fish could survive in water with an acidity of up to pH 5, but no research had been done to see how acidity affected freshwater environments as a whole. Schindler and his crew began manipulating the acid content of lakes at the Experimental Lakes Area and soon realized that previous laboratory studies had underestimated the effects of acid rain. Even though fish could survive  up to pH 5, lower levels of acidity harmed invertebrates in the lake, which disrupted the food web and ultimately harmed fish species. The results of the study resulted in policy makers in many countries passing legislation that mandated lakes be kept at lower levels of acidity than had previously been allowed.

“If there’s anything that’s characterized the site over the years, it’s that it has repeatedly shown that smaller scales of experiments in bottles or mesocosms and for periods of a few weeks often give us the wrong answers,” Schindler said. “I think the result of abandoning it could be that we’re going to be spending a lot more money on policies that are simply not going to work.”

ELA biologist Ken Sandilands collects zooplankton as part of work to monitor and understand the food webs in the lake.

The Experimental Lakes Area is one of the few places in the world where whole-lake experiments such as these can be done because large tracks of unused land are a rare commodity these days.

When the site was established in the 1960s, logging was still done with horses and the few trucks hauling felled trees were single-axle trucks that could only handle small loads. As such, isolated areas such as the site that eventually became the Experimental Lakes Area were not viewed as desirable by logging companies or governments who stood to profit from the resources . This has changed in the last four decades and Schindler said there is no longer anywhere a similar research site can be set up.

And even if a new site is developed elsewhere, critical research happening at the Experimental Research would be halted. Among these is the collection of long-term monitoring data which stretches back 44 years.

Loss of monitoring studies tragic

This monitoring started as a way to provide a control for ongoing research, including the nutrient pollution and acid rain studies. But Schindler soon realized the data provided a wealth of information in its own right. Over the last 44 years, he has seen a number of long-term trends: the temperature of water has increased more than two degrees Celcius, the amount of nitrogen falling with precipitation has more than doubled and the amount of calcium in precipitation has fallen drastically.

The long-term data has also shown how water evolves in a natural forest cycle which involves young trees growing older, being consumed by fire and then new trees growing back in the place of the old forest. Experimental Lakes Area researchers currently have data on the end of the last forest cycle and 30 years of data on the new cycle. At this point, they may never have data on the whole cycle.

Biologist Laurie Tate and Dr. Paul Blanchfield implant a transmitter under a trout’s skin so its movements can be tracked electronically.

“It would be really valuable if we could get the whole cycle, or most thereof,” Schindler said. “It could really do a lot to improve out understanding of what sort of conditions promote forest growth and what happens when forests are logged and things like that.”

Hall said the potential loss of long-term monitoring is particularly tragic because no one else is collecting this type of data.

“Universities don’t do a great job of long-term monitoring partly because someone’s career doesn’t often last more than 20 or 25 years,” she said.

“Governments are the best organizations to do that and there’s just not much of it happening out in the world any more.”

Researchers say they hope someone will be able to conduct long-term monitoring at the site this season since it is not a time-consuming process, but the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has not been able to confirm whether this is possible. The government has been close-mouthed about the future of the site since its closure was announced, continually saying only that ongoing negotiations are “confidential.” The lack of information has left many researchers wondering what the future will hold for the site and some staff have already left in search of other work.

“With no budget, no certainty of whether they will continue and a staff impaired by reduction in numbers, there are going to have to be some hard decisions made about what aspects will be continued and what won’t even in the best of conditions,” Schindler said. “Even if funding is found and a new parent for ELA is found it will take a few years to get things back working on all thunders.”

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