Predicting the impact of an oil spill on salmon is the focus of a new University of Guelph-led study.

In the three-year project, researchers will study how bitumen exposure affects Pacific sockeye salmon. They will look especially at cardiac health and aerobic fitness in the fish, particularly vital for migrating salmon that endure challenging conditions to complete their life cycle.

Bitumen extracted from the Canadian oil sands is transported by pipeline for processing into petroleum products. Prof. Todd Gillis, Integrative Biology, said this $430,000 project, which is funded by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, is important as government, industry, environmental groups and policy makers discuss pipeline transportation from the oil sands.

“Wild sockeye salmon are worth millions to the Pacific fishery industry, and also have enormous cultural significance for coastal peoples, so there’s a lot at stake,” said Gillis, who is the study’s principal investigator. He’s working with scientists at Simon Fraser University (SFU) and the University of British Columbia.

“And not to be too dramatic, but inevitably an oil spill will occur. What we’re trying to do is understand the impact so that appropriate management strategies can be developed. A healthy heart is vital for any animal, and particularly for migrating salmon that endure challenging conditions to complete their life cycle.”

Last fall, SFU researchers began exposing salmon embryos to low concentrations of bitumen.

Previous toxicity research using crude oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico showed that young fish are particularly sensitive to such environmental contamination.

“We’re using environmentally relevant levels of bitumen consistent with what the salmon would face in a spill; it doesn’t have to be at high concentrations to have developmental or physiological impacts,” Gillis said.

“After the oil spill that happened in the Gulf of Mexico, this became a North America-wide concern. The results of this study would be applicable to most fish species.”

The researchers will also study how bitumen exposure affects aerobic fitness and heart condition in juvenile salmon. Sockeye salmon spend up to two years in lakes where they’re born and where they are most vulnerable to oil exposure; they migrate to the ocean to mature.

The team also intends to identify plasma biomarkers for cardiac toxicity from crude oil exposure. Gillis says these biomarkers will help in monitoring and managing salmon populations in the event of an oil spill.

“If an oil spill impacts the health or development of the salmon heart, it would lead to an impact on aerobic fitness and migratory success. This could mean salmon would have extreme difficulty when returning to their spawning grounds. In effect, an oil spill could wipe out several generations.”

He expects to complete the project by 2017.