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Canada’s ocean research at risk, say scientists

Lots of money for fighter jets, but budget-skimping on CCGS Hudson replacement ship.

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As the Harper government prepares to spend $20 billion for 65 new fighter jets many say are unneeded, government scientists are quietly complaining that a single new ocean research ship is woefully under-budgeted at $120 million, putting the future of Canada’s marine science at risk.

The scientists are so alarmed about plans for the new ship they’ve taken the unusual and politically charged step of petitioning the departments of Fisheries and Oceans and Natural Resources Canada.

The 44 sea-going researchers, many working at the Bedford Institute of Oceanography, and an additional 18 former scientists and staff, have signed a letter calling the planned vessel “inadequate” and saying it will “limit Canada’s ability to know and to manage its offshore lands and seas.”

The new ship is planned as a replacement for the CCGS Hudson, a 91-metre vessel that has been the primary research platform for Canada’s offshore scientists since 1963.

In 2007, the government budgeted $120 million for a replacement vessel of roughly the same size as the Hudson, with an expected delivery date of 2014. But inflationary pressures have led to repeated reductions in the size of the replacement; current plans call for a 76-metre vessel; the Hudson displaces 4,800 tones, while the new ship would displace just 3,400 tonnes.

The smaller vessel, with less ice-breaking capability, takes much valuable time off the summer research season, explains the letter. And time will again be impacted because supplies will have to be ferried from far-away ports, rather than stored on board.

According to the letter, limited deck space on the new boat means that the ability to take core samples from the ocean floor would be severely limited, and that scientists would not be able to operate newly developed Canadian Autonomous Underwater Vehicles.

Additionally, a reduction in berths from the Hudson’s 31 to 24 means that there will be less room for university researchers. “The way we’ve been dealing with our tight budgets over the last two decades, is we’ve been partnering with the university people,” Ellen Kenchington, one of the lead authors of the letter, tells The Coast. But with fewer university-funded researchers will be on board, the DFO and NRCan budgets won’t stretch as far.

Kenchington is surprised that The Coast obtained the letter, and doesn’t want the issue to enter the political arena. “I think our concerns are being listened to; maybe I won’t feel this way in a couple of months,” she says. “At this point, people are asking for more information and I’m putting together what I can on it, and they’re asking others, so I think things are looking positive for a good outcome.”

“The design of the offshore oceanographic vessel is still in development and has not been finalized,” says Frank Stanek, a spokesperson for Fisheries and Oceans. “The project team is currently working with the design firm to finalize a design for construction, with a clear objective of maximizing the vessels’ research capabilities within the available budget.”

See the scientists' letter here.

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