Scientist Finds “Really Big Difference” in Fish Near Oil Sands Compared to Elsewhere

Paul Jones shows a young Dene boy how he samples fish in Fort Resolution, NT.

Paul Jones shows a young Dene boy how he samples fish in Fort Resolution, NT.

After heading the foremost fish study in the Athabasca and Slave River systems over the past several years, Dr. Paul Jones said the trends he is seeing in contaminants are not just petrochemical in nature, but likely caused by the oilsands industry.

Jones, whose University of Saskatchewan research is part of ongoing community-based monitoring efforts on the Slave River, recently gave an update on the study that has been looking at fish health from Fort McMurray, Alta. to Fort Resolution, NWT since 2011.

While across the board, fish – especially those in the Slave River – appear to be healthy for the most part, Jones said definite trends in even the low levels of contaminants found within fish show higher concentrations in those caught around Fort McMurray with those numbers falling as you go northward.

What Jones is finding is “a really big difference” between the types and concentrations of PAHs found in Athabasca fish as compared to those in the Slave River.

Apart from looking at overall fish health indicators, such as weight, parasites and exterior anomalies like lesions, Jones is also testing the fish for the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a set of carcinogenic compounds arising from combustion of forests, fossil fuels and cigarettes, among other sources.

PAHs are stored by fish in their gall bladders, which typically process the contaminants within a week, making it easier for scientists to locate the approximate source of the contamination.

What Jones is finding is “a really big difference” between the types and concentrations of PAHs found in Athabasca fish as compared to those in the Slave River.

“What we’re seeing is probably oilsands extraction-related contamination,” he said.

Not only are concentrations decreasing as you move downstream from Fort McMurray, but the “heavier” PAHs – the ones with four or five carbon rings, typically associated with petrochemicals – are being found in “dramatically higher concentrations” in fish around Fort McMurray while being “almost absent” from the Slave.

While those PAHs could be related to natural seepage events, Jones said his feeling is that oilsands activities far outweigh natural occurrences.

“What we’re seeing is probably oilsands extraction-related contamination,” he said.

Why the Slave River fish have yet to be as impacted, Jones believes, could be because of the relatively uncontaminated waters that feed into the waterway from the Peace River.

Paul Jones is the lead scientist in SWEEP fish sampling research.

Paul Jones is the lead scientist in SWEEP fish sampling research.

That said, the Athabasca River system should be seen as an “early warning system” for the Slave. If more pollutants are added, or if something changes on the Peace, it is only a matter of time before similar trends start being traced further north.

“If we start seeing things change in Fort Chip, we know it’s not going to be long before they start heading up into the Slave,” Jones said.

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About Meagan

Meagan Wohlberg is editor of Northern Journal, a weekly news publication covering northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories. She lives in Fort Smith, NWT.
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