Spawning sockeye salmon are seen making their way up the Adams River in Roderick Haig-Brown Provincial Park near Chase, B.C., on October 13, 2014. Salmon migrating through rivers and streams in British Columbia use all their strength, but new research says even tiny amounts of diluted bitumen weakens their chances of making it back to spawn. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Bitumen spill would harm B.C. salmon: study

Exposure to diluted bitumen hinders the swimming performance of salmon, causes their heart muscle to stiffen and damages their kidneys

Salmon migrating through rivers and streams in British Columbia use all their strength, but new research says even tiny amounts of diluted bitumen weakens their chances of making it back to spawn.

Exposure to diluted bitumen hinders the swimming performance of salmon, causes their heart muscle to stiffen and damages their kidneys, Sarah Alderman, a post-doctorate researcher at the University of Guelph, said in an interview.

“We’re seeing changes from molecules up to what the organ actually looks like. All of this is affecting how they can actually swim.”

Bitumen has the consistency of crumbling asphalt and doesn’t flow freely like oil. It needs to be diluted with another petroleum product for it to flow through pipelines.

It is the main crude product flowing through Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to B.C. The capacity of the pipeline is slated to triple to 900,000 barrels a day.

No one was available from Trans Mountain for an interview. The company said in a statement that it is not familiar with the University of Guelph research, but it is committed to ensuring pipeline safety.

“Trans Mountain shares the value Canadians place on our waterways and our important salmon populations,” said the statement.

“Pipeline safety is our number one priority and, through the experience gained in 65 years of operations, Trans Mountain has developed a mature suite of programs to prevent pipeline failures and maximize the safety of the pipeline system.”

Alderman said their research and work from Simon Fraser University, based in Burnaby, B.C., and the University of British Columbia are the first studies on the impact of bitumen on salmon migration.

“It really is an area that hasn’t had much attention,” she said. “Our knowledge of bitumen toxicity is really limited.”

Alderman said a bitumen spill is more difficult to control than an oil spill because bitumen sinks, while oil can be corralled with booms and skimmed from the surface.

The research involved exposing year-old salmon, the typical age of migration from freshwater to the sea, to low levels of bitumen. The salmon exposed to diluted bitumen were found to be less fit, with a 15-per-cent reduction in swimming capacity and signs of cardiac fibrosis. she said.

Blood tests indicated muscle and kidney damage, raising concerns about the ability of the salmon to recover from their migration, Alderman said.

“All of our (bitumen) exposures are at really low concentrations, parts per billion,” she said. “It doesn’t take much to have a big effect. The highest one we used was about 70 parts per billion of these dissolved compounds, and that’s 20 times less than was measured in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill.”

An explosion on the Deep Water Horizon oil rig in 2010 caused massive environmental damage along the coastline of the United States. It is considered the largest marine oil spill in the industry’s history.

The researchers plan to test how salmon perform in a simulated migration from fresh to salt water after being exposed to diluted bitumen, Alderman said.

She said the Trans Mountain expansion project and a potential spill is on the minds of the researchers.

The pipeline crosses the Fraser River watershed, Canada’s largest freshwater salmon-bearing area, Alderman said. B.C.’s commercial salmon and sport fishing industries are worth hundreds of millions of dollars and the species has significant cultural and spiritual importance to Indigenous people.

Alderman said they want to know how to be prepared for a possible spill and initial research indicates a quick responses limits the harm to salmon populations.

“That’s the big take home message from our first study,” Alderman said. “If this happens it really matters what life stages are present in the stream and how quickly you can clean it up and how much gets spilled.”

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Aboriginal Care Pharmacist helps Penelakut members achieve control over their own health

Jesse Inkster is passionate about helping people to understand their medications

Business notes: New public art gallery will bring economic benefits to Cowichan Valley

“The Valley will have a precious intellectual and cultural treasure that will enrich us”

Chemainus Theatre offers fall fun with ‘Lumberjacks in Love’

Are you ready for a musical called Lumberjacks in Love? Join the crowd for a fun night out

Roe leads Cowichan contingent at lacrosse Worlds

Defender locks up NLL deal after helping England to fourth

Two RCMP vehicles vandalized in Duncan over long weekend

Local Mounties asking for help in finding culprits

ELECTION 2019: Have Justin Trudeau’s Liberals really cut middle-class taxes?

Conservative Andrew Scheer vows to cut bottom bracket, NDP’s Jagmeet Singh targets wealth tax

‘Sky didn’t fall:’ Police, lawyers still adjusting after pot legalization

Statistics Canada says 541 people were charged under the federal Cannabis Act between Oct. 17, 2018 and the end of the year

Fewer people prescribed opioids in B.C., but other provinces lack data: doctors

Patients who began taking opioids were prescribed smaller doses for shorter duration

Electric cello, stolen from vehicle in Williams Lake, returned to U.S. owner

Rita Rice of Texas said she and her husband had given up hope of ever seeing it again

Vancouver Island’s West Coast going wild about cycling

Ongoing project will tie Tofino and Ucluelet together with a paved cycling trail

Drop, cover and hold on: Thousands of British Columbians to take part in earthquake drill

This year’s drill comes as scientists announce discovery of ‘stormquakes,’ an earthquake and hurricane

Woman, 24, faces life-altering injuries after being dragged 4 blocks by vehicle in Vancouver

A gofundme account says the woman will have to undergo multiple complex surgeries

Frustration and pride in Canada after a year of legal pot

It’s one year into Canada’s experiment in legal marijuana, and hundreds of legal pot shops have opened

Most Read