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Effects of diluted bitumen exposure during early life stages on the aerobic capacity and cardiac health of Pacific sockeye salmon


Diluted bitumen is currently transported in Canada, and it is anticipated that shipped volumes will increase in the future. Accidental releases near rivers and lakes from proposed pipelines could be harmful to fish species including salmonids. Previous toxicity research using other crude oils suggests that early life stages of fish would be particularly sensitive to accidental release of diluted bitumen.

This research project addresses sub-lethal exposure of sockeye salmon to bitumen at two critical life stages and how this impacts cardiac development and cardiorespiratory function. A healthy heart is vital for any animal, and particularly for migrating salmon that endure challenging conditions to complete their life cycle. Previous research has shown that sub-lethal exposure to crude oil and its derivatives (i.e. polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)) are cardiotoxic in developing fish. Importantly, these cardiotoxic impacts could threaten population success by diminishing the swimming and migratory capacity necessary to complete their lifecycle. Studies on how bitumen exposure influences cardiac development and health, aerobic performance, or migratory ability of sockeye salmon are lacking. Moreover, while chemical analysis of salmon tissues can demonstrate bitumen exposure, lacking is a non-lethal and reliable plasma biomarker that predicts compromised fitness.

This project will provide important data on the effects of diluted bitumen exposure to cardiac morphology and function in developing salmon. These effects will then be linked to aerobic performance, and a detailed plasma analysis will identify biomarkers that predict compromised fitness due to early life stage bitumen exposure. These biomarkers will provide a non-lethal tool to aid in monitoring and managing salmon populations in the event of accident release of diluted bitumen.

Program Name

National Contaminants Advisory Group (NCAG)


2014 - 2017


Pacific: Vancouver Island West Coast

Principal Investigator(s)

Todd E. Gillis
Associate Professor, Department of Integrative Biology
University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario

Team Member(s)

Chris Kennedy, Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, BC

Anthony P. Farrell, Professor, Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC

Sarah L. Alderman, Research Associate, Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph, Guelph, ON

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