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VANCOUVER (Reuters) - A Senate committee offered a beacon of hope for Canada's remaining manned lighthouses on Tuesday, saying the government should put on hold renewed efforts to eliminate what are viewed as symbols of the country's maritime past.
Canada's first lighthouse was built in 1734, but the government has been replacing the lightkeepers with automated equipment since the 1970s and only 51 manned stations remaining in operation.
The Coast Guard says technology means keepers are no longer needed at the facilities to maintain the lights and collect weather data, but mariners and coastal aviators complain it makes them less reliable or useful.
Fifty of the remaining manned lighthouses are in British Columbia, on the Pacific coast, and in Atlantic-coast province of Newfoundland and Labrador. For sovereignty reasons, a single facility is maintained in the Gulf of Maine, on the border of New Brunswick and the U.S. state of Maine.
Efforts to fully automate those facilities were put on hold because of strong local opposition in 1998, but the government revived the plan in 2009.
"The Coast Guard's de-staffing plan is widely viewed in the regions as being 'penny wise and pound foolish'," members of the Fisheries and Oceans committee wrote after touring the facilities.
The committee said the stations should keep their staffs until the government fully studies if its plan to save money will end up costing lives and make the facilities less valuable to coastal communities.
The lightkeepers say in addition to making sure the lights work when needed, they provide crucial "eyes and ears" information on fast-changing local weather conditions and can offer assistance to people in trouble.
The Coast Guard defends doing away with manned lighthouses as a prudent financial move, and says the United States has eliminated its lightkeepers, including on the Alaska coast that is similar to British Columbia's.
In addition to eliminating lightkeepers, the Coast Guard would like to replace many of the existing structures with metal towers that will be easier to maintain.
The Senate committee acknowledged some of the opposition in coastal communities was driven by historical attachment to the manned lighthouses.
"Beyond their traditional role as navigation aids, they are monuments to Canada's proud maritime heritage," committee members wrote. "Like railway stations, they played an important role in Canada's history."
Reporting by Allan Dowd; Editing by Frank McGurty