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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

New MP Taylor Bachrach makes his first trip to Bella Coola

Bachrach said he is keen to get to know his riding and the members of his constituency

Bachrach rejects calls for police action against demonstrators

Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP says only way out of crisis is “true nation-to-nation” talks

Nuxalk Nation celebrates first carpentry graduates

11 students graduated from the community’s first carpentry program

Bella Coola leave their mark on All Native Basketball Tournament as they reach Intermediate final

Nuxalk Braves bring home a strong second place finish; three individual awards for Marlon Edgar-Apps

All Native Basketball: Finals matchups start to take shape as title games approach

Two Prince Rupert sides in contention, while two dynasties are on the brink

HIGHLIGHTS: Day one and two at the 2020 BC Winter Games

Athletes had sunny – but cold – weather to work with in Fort St. John

Tyler Toffoli scores twice, Canucks crush Bruins 9-3

Stecher, Miller each add three points for Vancouver

Zamboni driver, 42, earns NHL win over Maple Leafs

Emergency goalie called into action for Carolina Hurricanes

Governor general says multiple solutions needed for ‘complicated’ overdose issue

Julie Payette met at a fire hall with firefighters and police officers as well as politicians and health experts

Landlord ordered to pay $11K after harassing B.C. mom to move days after giving birth

Germaine Valdez was pressured to move just a few days after giving birth by C-section to her child

Heart attacks strike B.C. husband and wife just over one year apart

Courtenay couple share personal stories to bring awareness to heart month

‘Nothing surprises us anymore:’ U.S. border officials find brain in package

U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents found the brain packed in a glass mason jar in a Canada Post shipment

B.C., Ottawa sign sweeping 30-year deal for northern caribou habitat

West Moberly, Saulteau co-manage new protection on two million acres

Eyes on police after Trudeau orders blockades torn down, injunctions enforced

The RCMP in B.C. have sent a letter to the traditional leaders of the Wet’suwet’en Nation

Most Read