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Environmental effects of diluted bitumen on Pacific salmonids


Canada is the sixth largest oil producing country in the world yielding an average of 197,000 m3/d of bitumen, mostly from oil sands in northern Alberta. Canadian pipeline companies have proposed a number of major new transmission pipelines from this area, increases in rail transport, and new marine terminal development for tanker export of bitumen to overseas markets. In BC, the routes of existing and proposed pipelines traverse the Fraser River Watershed, spawning habitat for multiple species of Pacific salmon species. Similarly in eastern Canada, proposed routes traverse Atlantic salmon bearing rivers and watersheds. There are concerns where leaks and ruptures to these pipelines could pose serious challenges to aquatic biota including salmon.

Few studies exist on the toxicity of diluted bitumen (dilbit) to fish species specifically. Some key information from toxicological studies of crude oil and its components such as BTEX and PAH may be applied to dilbit, however, generalizations on risk cannot be made with any certainty. Crude oil can be acutely lethal, and chronic sublethal effects may persist for decades. Toxic effects of crude oil exposure can include death, morphological and histopathological effects, genotoxicity, immunotoxicity, developmental and reproductive effects, amongst others. Regarding salmonids, limited data suggests that it is that early life stages that are most at risk to the potential effects of dilbit exposure.

Possible risks from spills of dilbit are a source of scientific uncertainty with respect to salmon habitat quality throughout Canada. To address this uncertainty, the proposed research will evaluate the toxicity of dilbit to juvenile salmon species. The objectives of this proposal are to generate new empirical data that directly addresses how sub-lethal exposures to dilbit at environmentally realistic concentrations affects the development, growth, and performance of salmon at early life stages. Results will improve our understanding of effects and will aid in the development of risk assessment plans for managing salmon populations in the event of potential pipeline failures.

Program Name

National Contaminants Advisory Group (NCAG)


2014 - 2017


Pacific: North Coast and Hecate Strait

Principal Investigator(s)

Chris Kennedy
Professor, Department Biological Sciences
Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia

Collaborative Partner(s)

T. Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation, BC

United Fisheries Allied Workers Union, BC

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