A Manitoulin Island fish farmer will rally support to keep the Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario operating for years to come.
Mike Meeker, president of the Northern Ontario Aquaculture Association, said his group will look at the possibility of pulling together a coalition of private and public interests to keep the world-renowned national aquatic research facility open before federal funding runs out next March.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind facility,” said Meeker. “It would be a shame if it disappeared.”
Located south of the Trans-Canada Highway between Dryden and Kenora, the facility has been a test bed for Meeker and the freshwater aquaculture industry in studying the environmental and ecological impact of caged fish farming.
Founded in 1968, Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) is made up of 58 lakes in northwestern Ontario where groundbreaking research has been conducted into acid rain and climate change.
As part of federal budget cuts, Ottawa has announced Fisheries and Oceans Canada will stop funding the ELA next spring and wants a private sector operator or a post-secondary institution to come forward.
The move has spawned a campaign of online petitions, letters to government, and condemnation from leading environmental scientists across North America.
Meeker said the ELA does “tremendous, groundbreaking work” that’s widely acknowledged and respected around the world.
He was one of the beneficiaries of research conducted there in the late 1990s and early 2000s that helped keep his fledgling industry alive.
“The work they did for us was important as an industry.”
Meeker collaborated with the ELA team over seven years to study the environmental impacts of aquaculture.
The research focussed on potential impacts of escapees on wild fish populations and the release of waste materials, namely phosphorous, dissolved carbon and nitrogen, released by feces and feed.
It was done at a time when environmental groups like David Suzuki Foundation, and even Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner, were attacking this, largely unregulated, industry.
Freshwater cage operators like Meeker were seeking to legitimize the fish farming industry as stewards of the environment.
Meeker supplied the team of scientists with fish, nets, equipment and the expertise to establish a real world fish farming operation.
The research provided invaluable baseline data that could quantify the impact on the environment and is now used by the aquaculture industry in its predictive modelling.
“They even proved the positive effects of having nets in the water,” said Meeker.
“It was, by far, the most important research we did to legitimize our industry to bring science to our modelling capabilities.”
Meeker intends to get involved by approaching universities and people within industry to come up with a business plan and a co-ordinated partnership to keep the facility open.
“I want to discuss the possibilities of a partnership. Lobbying the government is foolish because they don’t want to shut it down and we don’t want to shut it down.”
“My understanding is (Fisheries and Oceans) wants this to stay open and they need partners.”
Meeker said the ELA has already been discussed by his membership and he will push hard for his association to be a partner.
“When looking back at the importance of that facility, moving forward with the environmental changes we’re seeing, and the relevance to what they do across Canada, I would hope we can pull together the partners to do it.”
The ELA has a $2-million annual budget for operating expenses and 15 to 20 core personnel.
The facility contains the lakes and their watersheds, along with a field station of 20 buildings with modern labs, workshops, kitchen and accommodations for as many as 50 personnel.