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The Environmental Effects of Diluted Bitumen on Marine Phytoplankton, Macroalgae, and Intertidal Vascular Plants


Shipments of crude oil and other substances in Canada’s coastal waters are expected to increase significantly over the coming years given the proposed increases in tanker exports of diluted bitumen Footnote 1 (dilbit) and crude oil to overseas markets. This also increases the potential for a marine spill and related risks to ocean life. After the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the loss and degradation of the brown algae Fucus in Prince William Sound, Alaska, triggered a myriad of direct and indirect impacts on the food web, many of which persisted for years. However, knowledge about how crude oil spills affect marine organisms cannot be applied to diluted bitumen with any certainty since it has different characteristics than crude oil. Moreover, there is little knowledge about the impact of petroleum products on one major group of marine species: photosynthetic microalgae, macroalgae, and intertidal vascular plants. These organisms form the foundation of the marine food web, provide oxygen, refuge, foraging, and spawning habitat, and improve water quality.

This project involves both short- and long-term laboratory exposures of microalgae, macroalgae, and vascular plants that are commonly found in Canada’s West Coast waters to diluted bitumen at environmentally realistic concentrations. Both lethal and sublethal effects will be studied, including physiological impacts that affect their survival, performance, and reproduction. The new toxicity data will be added to a database for this important group of marine organisms, and will inform the development of risk assessment plans for managing ecosystem resources and services in the event of potential dilbit spill in coastal areas of Canada.

Program Name

National Contaminants Advisory Group (NCAG)


2017 – 2020


Pacific Coast: Strait of Georgia, Southern Shelf, Northern Shelf

Principal Investigator(s)

Dr. Chris Kennedy
Professor, Aquatic Toxicology, Department of Biological Sciences
Simon Fraser University

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