Non-profit organizations have been hit with funding cuts to the Federal Government’s summer student program.
“It’s definitely a problem and it’s definitely a problem that we’re not just seeing locally but we’re seeing across the province because people have depended on that ability to hire students for the summer and those grants are so necessary especially for nonprofits,” said Ucluelet chamber of commerce executive director Sue Payne.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s Beggars Checklist published in 2009 suggests local governments should cooperate with non-profit organizations to save taxdollars but the cuts are threatening to throw a wrench in the win-win wheels of such relationships.
“If we don’t get any more grants, yes, we’ll be understaffed,” said Ucluelet Aquarium curator Laura Griffith-Cochrane.
“Usually in the summer we extend our hours and we really try to reach as many people as possible and if we don’t have enough staff to do that we might have to consider other options.”
The Ucluelet Aquarium is run by a non-profit society accustomed to receiving federal funding for four university students and one high school student each summer.
“This year we have one university student,” Griffith-Cochrane said.
The aquarium has four full-time staff members one of whom handles marketing and communications leaving the remaining three to handle tank cleaning, animal care, equipment maintenance, and interpretative tours.
Having one summer student to work with leaves the aquarium’s interpretive staffing capacity maxed-out at four and mixing in days off equals two staff being asked to handle hundreds of visitors a day.
“Right now we get about 100 people a day on a really good day, if we start getting 500 people a day like in the middle of August you just can’t manage that many people with only two staff members on at a time,” Griffith-Cochrane said.
“The Ucluelet Aquarium’s experience is entirely based on interpretation…We really need to have staff to be able to talk to people to be able to provide them with the insight to all of the cool things that we have.”
Her 500 people estimate is not hyperbole as the aquarium welcomed 580 patrons in one day last summer and high visitation isn’t exclusive to summer months.
“This past Saturday when it was really rainy and stormy and all the whale watching tours were cancelled we had 300 people that came through,” Griffith-Cochrane said.
She said the aquarium also delivers important information to visitors on how to treat the local oceanic community.
As capability to hire students dwindles, so do opportunities for students to gain experience and Griffith-Cochrane, who went through the program to land her first gig at the Ucluelet Aquarium seven years ago, sees this as a tremendous loss.
“It’s a really important program,” she said. “It provides young people with some really cool skills that you might not have the opportunity to gain otherwise.”
She said the biology field is becoming increasingly competitive and young people are finding fewer opportunities to gain the type of hands-on experience the Ucluelet Aquarium provides.
“Because it’s a small staff and it’s intensive, you have to learn how to use all the life support equipment, you have to learn how to do all the plumbing, you have to learn how to analyze species, how to assess states of health, you have to learn how to do treatments, and then you have to learn how to communicate all of those things very effectively to other people that might not have biological backgrounds,” she said. “So it gives you really, really, good life skills.”
With only one summer student en route, the aquarium hopes to draw from a community full of ocean loving locals for assistance.
“We are going to be doing a new volunteer program this summer and were really excited about it,” Griffith Cochrane said. “It’s a huge help so if anyone would like to come out and help the aquarium this summer we’d be wonderfully appreciative.”
She encourages locals to take advantage of the opportunity to experience the aquarium from a volunteer’s perspective.
“You get to interact with marine life throughout the day you get to see things that wouldn’t normally be able to see unless you were willing to jump in our chilly ocean with a mask and snorkel,” she said. “We have a wonderful staff it’s a good really good community that’s in this aquarium so it’s a really fun working environment as well.”
Read about how the cuts are affecting the West Coast’s visitor centres in next week’s Westerly News.