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UVic PhD student shocked by fisheries job cuts in North Saanich

May 23 2012

When University of Victoria PhD student Marie Noel decided to study the effects of contaminants on marine mammal health, she thought she was a assured a long marine biology career without pink slips and redundancy notices.

"I was thinking it was a very safe choice because there is always going to be contaminants and people should always be interested in knowing what's in their environment, but apparently not," Noel said, who came to Canada from France in 2007.

The 29-year-old student is still in shock that her mentor, Canada's only marine mammal toxicologist at the Institute of Ocean Sciences on Vancouver Island, is losing his job as the federal government cuts almost all employees who monitor ocean pollution across Canada.

Peter Ross, an expert on killer whales and other marine mammals, and eight of his North Saanich coworkers were among 75 staff members across Canada informed last week that the Department of Fisheries is closing the nation's contaminants program effective next year.

In total, 1,075 people received letters saying their jobs would be affected.

"It blows your mind," said Noel, who is studying the health of beluga whales in the Arctic's Beaufort Sea and working closely with the people of Tuktoyaktuk, who harvest the whales.

"They really like the work we do because they want to know what's in their food," she said.

Beluga whales in the Arctic, like killer whales in the Pacific, tell scientists about the entire food web because both are long lived, travel vast distances and, like humans, are on the top of the food chain and accumulate chemicals through the food web.

"Both are giving us an integrated story of what's going on in the state of their environment, just as a canary in a coal mine would," Ross said.

There are 25,000 chemicals on Canada's Domestic Substances List, and tens of thousands of unregistered ones, Ross said.

Hundreds of these chemicals can be detected in Canada's killer whales.

Transient and southern resident killer whales are amongst the most PCB-contaminated marine mammals in world, according to Ross's research.

The entire Department of Fisheries and Oceans contaminants program is being shut down effective April 1, 2013.

Official letters are expected to be delivered in June, and Ross has been told he will have a few months to wrap up his files.

The entire pollution file for the government of Canada, and the marine environment in Canada's three oceans will be overseen by five junior biologists, including one stationed in B.C., Ross said.

DFO spokeswoman Melanie Carkner said between Fisheries and the Canadian Coast Guard, about $79.3 million in savings for has been found for Canadian taxpayers. The approximately 400 positions being removed from DFO's 11,000-strong workforce is less than two per cent a year over three years, she said.

In lieu of in-house research on the biological effects of contaminants and pesticides, the department will establish an advisory group and research fund of $1.4 million a year to work with academia and other independent facilities to get advice on priority issues, Carkner said.

Noel is scheduled to meet with her advisors at the Institute of Ocean Sciences this week.

"These people are so passionate about what they are doing; it's their life. And the government's not supporting it at all and just doesn't care," she said.

"With all the oil and gas exploration and everything, you should do more monitoring, if anything."

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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