“When I first visited this area near Fort McMurray about 12 years ago, people called it the Valley of Death,” explains Dr. Michael van den Heuvel, pointing to a photo on his computer screen of a desolate, northern landscape. His mouth draws to a slight grin. “Now that the land has been reclaimed as pasture, forest and wetland, they call it South Bison Pond.”
Van den Heuvel is a Canada Research Chair in Watershed Ecological Integrity, and a fellow of the Canadian Rivers Institute. He’s currently working with his co-investigator, Dr. Natacha Hogan, an assistant professor in Biology and associate fellow of the Canadian Rivers Institute, on a project called Investigation of the Potential of Oil Sands Process-Affected Waters to Impact Fish Populations through Immune Suppression, supported by NSERC, and several industry partners working in the Alberta Oil Sands.
“After oil is extracted from the oil sands, the waste left over is called tailings,” says van den Heuvel. “The remediation plan for the area includes the construction of more than 20 artificial lakes, with these tailings forming the bottom of the lakes.”
The team’s work centres on two test ponds – one named Demonstration Pond, the other South Bison.
“We released yellow perch into those two ponds in 1995, and came back a year later to measure what effect the tailings had on their reproductive health,” remembers van den Heuvel. “I was surprised to find no effect, whatsoever. But, the fish were much more prone to a condition called fin erosion, and there was a higher incidence of disease.”
Many of the fish developed a viral lesion — not a terribly attractive affliction, but Hogan explains it’s not a serious condition.
“It doesn’t affect life expectancy, or negatively affect other health indicators. Still, we’d like to know what’s causing the increased incidence, and see if there’s anything we can do to prevent it.”
Van den Heuvel and Hogan will recreate the environment in their laboratory at UPEI, using water shipped from the ponds. For now, instead of yellow perch, they will study rainbow trout.
“It just so happens the genes we need to study are already mapped out in rainbow trout,” says Hogan. “We can see which are being turned on and off in response to whatever is in the ponds. That sort of information isn’t available yet for yellow perch.”
Van den Heuvel points out these are early days in the research, and there are still several questions they need answers for.
“For instance,” he says, “there are also fathead minnows living in these ponds that don’t have an increased incidence of this disease. One explanation could be the short life cycle of the minnows: there have been 12 or more generations of minnows in these ponds. Maybe they’ve adapted to the environment. Maybe different species have different sensitivities . That’s part of what we’re trying to understand.”
Van den Heuvel will travel back to Fort McMurray next month to continue his work.