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

Celeb adds star power to Green Party town hall in Nanaimo

Pamela Anderson attended with representatives from U.S.-based environmental group

Cowichan River swim falls short, but swimmer says point made

Geoff de Ruiter thinks lengthy dip in heritage waterway raised profile of the dangers it is facing

Iconic Victoria rock music archivist ready to pass the torch

Royal City Music Project co-founder Glenn Parfitt wants valuable cultural material preserved

Editorial: when are Vancouver Island communities going to say no to increased taxes?

Local governments are finding it too easy to continually say “just a little more”

Big Lonely Doug protected along with 53 of his closest friends

Classic Vancouver Island tree among B.C’s largest old-growth trees now on protection list

VIDEO: Sparrows raise their chicks in Cadboro Bay deck planter

Jill Yoneda captured 11 days up close with tiny Junco sparrows

Neighbour details hearing ‘thuds’ day girls found dead in Oak Bay

Jury at double-murder trial hears from Andrew Berry’s neighbour

Port Alberni beach closed due to high bacterial count

Tides make source of issues at Canal Waterfront Park difficult to determine

‘Charismatic violent offender’ to be sentenced in Nanaimo drug debt tasering

Colin Damen Gary Lamontagne pleaded guilty to charges, including aggravated assault

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to make public transit announcement in Victoria on Thursday

Trudeau is speaking at a campaign countdown event in downtown Victoria

Victoria car show’s ferry event a highlight for arriving hot-rodders

Thursday’s grand opening event one of several planned for Northwest Deuce Days

Gas price inquiry questions Trans Mountain capacity, company denies collusion

The first of up to four days of oral hearings in the inquiry continue in Vancouver

Victoria Police make contact with cyclist seen clipped in dashcam video

The cyclist reached out to VicPD after the video was shared online

Will you be celebrating national hotdog day with any of these crazy flavours?

The popularity of hotdogs spans generations, cultures

Most Read