Conservatives kill the messenger

By Aaren Madden, October 2012

Even after losing his job measuring marine contaminants, Peter Ross is more concerned about the country’s future than his own.

Peter Ross is Canada’s only marine mammal toxicologist. At the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney, he studies the levels of toxic chemicals found in a wide range of creatures, including sea otters, seals and whales. This determines effects on their health, the health of their food sources, the oceans, and aboriginal food sources. “This is knowledge that informs policies, regulations, and practices that enable us to protect the ocean and its resources for today’s users and for future generations,” he explains. 

Until January, that is. That’s when his employment with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will be terminated, along with the nine other employees in the department, due to last April’s federal budget cuts. Ross expects the 120-day notice to arrive some time in September.

It’s pretty overwhelming for Ross, but not because he’ll be out of a job. As a leader in his field, he’s had offers from the around the globe. However, while the government doesn’t seem to, he feels a responsibility to this place, and he’s hoping to find a way to continue in another capacity. “We have got to do this work; we can’t just bail on it completely,” he says. “I understand what’s been going on with pollution in the ocean and I can help prioritize what the issues are, what the threats are; I can work with others to apply technologies or regulations to try to improve things. So to simply extricate myself from that and move to New England or Australia, [it] seems to me I would be failing the country that brought me up and educated me,” he worries.

While figuring out his next move, he’s racing against time. “We’ve got data; we’ve got samples; we’ve got projects underway. I’ve got to write these manuscripts and get them out there so the scientific world can see them and the public and the policy makers can use them. Come January, I won’t have finished everything. Do I just toss all my data into the recycling bin?” he asks.

Maybe it’s his nature. When he was five years old, he watched the moon landing on a news broadcast and, like millions of others, a chord of awe was struck within. The segment directly following brought dissonance to that chord: images of people walking around in masks due to drastic levels of air pollution in Tokyo. “I became concerned we were going to run out of clean air,” he says.

That concern, combined with a love of animals, led to a biology degree at Trent University in Peterborough. Learning of the death of 20,000 harbour seals in northern Europe, he earned a Master’s at Dalhousie University in Halifax studying the effects of toxins on their immune systems. A pioneer in the field, he developed new study techniques—working amongst the legendary beauty and wild horses of Sable Island. After a PhD at Utrecht University and a few years of post-doc here at the Institute for Ocean Sciences, he was hired full time in 1999. 

The learning hasn’t stopped since. “As we get older,” he reflects, “we tend to think we are getting smarter, wiser. [But] as I get more advanced in my career, I feel as though I know less and less. I realize how little we know about the world around us. That realization comes from working on countless research projects with different people, graduate students, scientists, and aboriginal communities.” 

With genuine wonder, Ross says that a sea otter’s fur has over 100,000 hairs per square centimetre. He has felt its incredible softness, but explains that it’s simply a unique adaptation to a harsh climate. He remembers being off the rugged coast of Nuchatlitz Island for a study, “where [sea otters] thrive. I wondered how they did it. I felt so fortunate to be able to live-capture one of these creatures and spend an hour with it, and then it goes off into that surf again. That surf has destroyed many ships. It’s an incredible area to imagine surviving and reproducing.”

That study involved measuring the levels of stable isotopes in the creatures’ hair and whiskers, and hydrocarbon levels in their blood. “The number one threat to sea otters in BC is oil spills,” he explains, “so we are trying to get a baseline understanding of what hydrocarbons they are getting exposed to from other sources.” Which, in turn, could have implications for oil and gas shipping and exploration policy.

Speaking of hydrocarbons—and who isn’t these days?—Ross’ findings, no matter how inspiring their source, are not always welcome by the powers-that-be. “There is a real apprehension that if we uncover, measure and report on contaminants in marine mammals, it will tell us something about fish, and it will have potential implications for humans,” he says. Then someone will have to do something about it, meaning there are political and economic ramifications. In short, he opens cans of worms.

But they must be opened. “To me, it’s a no-brainer,” he says. He notes multiple examples of how research (his own and others’) has been beneficial. “We’ve seen a ten-fold decrease in PCBs in harbour seals in BC since 1970. We’ve seen a four-fold decrease in PCBs in killer whales in BC. We’ve seen a 95 percent reduction in dioxins being released from pulp mills. PBDEs (flame retardant chemicals) were doubling every 3.5 years here in fish; they have been dropping since Canada implemented its first of two sets of regulations on PBDEs in 2005. So, it’s absolutely possible to do something about it,” he insists.

Ross argues that those were all cost-effective programs, yet cost cutting was cited as the reason for his department’s termination. “One hundred percent of the staff working on contaminants are being axed. That’s rather drastic cost-cutting, when the government is trying to save between five and eight percent,” he suggests, adding that his department’s research budget was actually terminated six years ago (he gets funding from a variety of sources, including municipalities, the US government, the DFO and various foundations). It leads him to only one conclusion: “It’s targeted.” 

Considering the government’s replacement plan for Ross’ department, it’s hard for him to think otherwise. The plan, he says, will see five junior biologists scattered across the country (one in BC) and an advisory group, with a research fund of $1.4 million dollars per year, overseeing the entire marine pollution file for the Government of Canada. “I don’t understand how it’s going to work,” he states. The problems? Research credentials are not guaranteed, for one. For another, Ross’ expertise and journal publications link him to a global community that Canada may no longer benefit from, since he won’t be involved. He can’t imagine how such specialized work can be duplicated, nor how the government will be able to enact sound policy.

“Simply put, we will not know what the future holds because we won’t really be doing the work,” Ross says. “Certainly there are different ways to study pollution in the ocean: conservation groups, regional governments, university professors. One could argue, collectively, that will help to monitor our oceans. But I guess I am a little perplexed at the notion that the federal government in Canada, a country surrounded by three oceans, thinks that transferring this role out of the federal government [is appropriate].” Pausing, he asks the ultimate question: “Who’s going to take on responsibility for it?” 

Aaren Madden has been thinking about the lamentable poetry of sea otters thriving amongst the shipwrecks that belie a place so clearly inhospitable to humans, their greatest threat.