Fish deformities in Alberta, US linked to oil pollution: scientist

Fish deformities in Alberta, US linked to oil pollution: scientist
Renowned scientist David Schindler says deformities found on fish in the Athabasca River, such as the one pictured above, are remarkably similar to those found on fish in the Gulfs of Mexico and Alaska following devastating oil spills.Photo: Meagan Wolhberg.

What do fish in the Athabasca River have in common with those in the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of Alaska? They share deformities caused by oil pollution in the water, according to renowned watershed scientist Dr. David Schindler.

The University of Alberta scientist, who helped link oilsands upgraders to carcinogenic contaminants found in the nearby snowpack in northeastern Alberta, brought the issue forward to federal ministers last week, asking them to do more to assist scientific research on the matter.

In a letter to Environment Minister Peter Kent and Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield, Schindler argued there are “remarkable similarities” in the abnormalities found on fish in the Athabasca River and ones following the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of Alaska, respectively, along with some found on Great Lakes fish in the vicinity of heavy industries.

“Given the parallels in the cases from various locations, it seems likely that some chemical or suite of chemicals in crude oil is causing the malformations,” Schindler said. “The most likely suspects are probably polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), their alkylated derivatives, or closely related dibenzothiophenes.”

Many PAHs are suspected or known to cause cancer, mutations or deformities in embryos or fetuses, Schindler said, and are linked to immune suppression.

“In the Gulf, the result has been that many fish species have become vulnerable to a broad suite of bacterial and viral diseases and…parasites,” he said. “High concentrations of PAHs are also associated with the appearance of lesions in red snapper.”

Other chemicals associated with oilsands processing waters, such as naphthenic acids, could also be at play, Schindler noted, along with chemical dispersants used to clean up oil spills in the Gulf.

While some PAHs and related contaminants occur naturally in the lower Athabasca River, Schindler said university and government research links industry to the deformities.

“The recent high frequency of malformations suggests that industrial inputs have caused some threshold for malformations to be crossed,” the letter states.

Keep outdoor lab open, Schindler requests

Schindler is requesting the ministers act now on protecting a scientific research area in northern Ontario in order to properly test the possible link between oilsands-related chemicals and fish.

“While Environment Canada scientists are now doing an excellent job of monitoring the river, it will be impossible to determine which chemicals are responsible for the malformations in the complex chemical soup that occurs downstream of oilsands mining,” he said.

“A more expeditious way of identifying them would be whole ecosystem experiments where small amounts of selected chemicals are applied to whole lakes, and effects determined on several key species in the food chain…The Experimental Lakes Area in northwestern Ontario (ELA) is ideal for such a purpose.”

The ELA is currently under threat of being permanently shut down due to the federal government’s decision to cut its $2-million per year funding.

The federal government temporarily closed the outdoor laboratory – the only one of its kind in the world – in March while they search for a group to take it over. While a new group was supposed to take control of the research site by Mar. 31 when funding ended, a replacement organization has yet to be found.

The department of Fisheries and Oceans has been conducting experiments in the area of 58 small, pristine lakes since 1968.

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  • fish stories
    September 12, 2014, 1:21 PM

    […] of A scientist and professor of ecology, Dr. David Schindler, spoke at a 2014 conference co-hosted by the Athabasca Chipewyan and which I was able to attend.  […]


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