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Report says Canada at risk of losing world-leader status on ocean science

Funding for ocean research has not declined, but has shifted from individual researchers to large projects involving many organizations.

Cetacean Research Program, Fisheries and Oceans Canada

Canada is a global steward of the seas with the longest coastline in the world stretched along three oceans, but that role is at risk, says a new report.

The report released Wednesday by the Council of Canadian Academies said government funding for ocean science is actually increasing — contrary to perception — but a lack of co-ordination limits the usefulness of research being done by governments, universities and industry in this country.

"We've got to take seriously that fact that oceans are just fundamental to us," said David Strangway, chairman of the expert panel that prepared the report and the former president of the University of British Columbia.

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"The world of science and technology and the things we need to understand about our coasts and our coastlines and the impact on people is changing dramatically, and we have to not just rest on our laurels."

Canada has been a leader in ocean science internationally, Strangway said.

But the review by a panel of eight experts from Fisheries and Oceans Canada, several universities, and as far afield as the Geomar Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Germany found three main gaps that threaten that status.

There is no overarching national strategy or vision for ocean science for Canada, and there is a lack of co-ordination among the many different organizations conducting research and innovation in the private and public sectors, the report said.

There is also an information gap, it said, making it very difficult to put together a solid picture of the information and resources out there.

"The fork in the road that we're at is if we don't take all of this really seriously and understand the significance of the oceans to Canada, we are not going to continue to be leaders," Strangway said.

Canada, with 243,000 kilometres of coastline, has an enormous impact on the ocean and it has an enormous impact on us, the report stressed.

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The authors pointed out that the three oceans along our coasts provide Canadians with food and energy, they are our connection to the goods of the rest of the world, and important to our health and well-being.

Oceans effect and are affected by climate change, and there are many issues arising in ocean science, including water acidification, overfishing, resource extraction and Arctic shipping.

Louis Fortier, a biologist at Universite Laval and a co-author of the report, said Canada has a substantial but aging research fleet, including an investment in unmanned underwater vehicles, and emerging technology.

"Compared to other countries, there is a need to renew the Canadian research fleet," he said.

"In Canada, we are present in the field but we need to increase our expertise and our capacity to explore the ocean using means different from ships."

Canada does have several world-class ocean observation systems, the report noted, including the Ocean Networks Canada, which operates the NEPTUNE and VENUS ocean observatories in British Columbia and recently went live with an Arctic observatory anchored in the waters off Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

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These underwater observatories collect data on physical, chemical, biological, and geological aspects of the ocean over long time periods.

Howard Brunt, vice-president of research at the University of Victoria, a partner in Ocean Networks and a member of the Canadian Consortium of Ocean Research Universities that asked the council to prepare the report, said Canada does excellent research on oceans.

Brunt said government funding for ocean research has not declined, but rather has shifted from individual researchers to large projects involving many organizations.

"I'm a vice-president of research for a university. I'm always going to say we need more funding because I've got everyone knocking on my door with great ideas and needs," he said.

"I think though, as the report highlights, really in terms of the budget reductions that at the federal government (level) have gone on over many years, science has actually been treated very well.

"It could always be more but, by the same token, compared to some other budget reductions taking place in various other sectors of the economy, we've done reasonably well."

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