4.2   Fish health and community endpoints as indicators of potential changes in the oil sands region

Anil Gupta, AEMERA and Heather Keith, Hatfield Consultants





Fish community monitoring in the Athabasca oil sands region focuses on characterizing the fish assemblage of regional rivers on the basis of fish abundance, richness, diversity, and species tolerance in areas downstream of oil sands development. The Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Plan (JOSMP) includes a significant fish community monitoring program on tributaries of the Athabasca River, based largely on a program that was originally initiated in 2009 under the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program (RAMP). Fish community monitoring was included at locations where monitoring of hydrology, water quality, sediment quality, benthos, and in some cases, fish health (sentinel fish species) was already occurring in order to provide a more holistic and harmonized approach to the assessment of the aquatic health of each river. By monitoring all aquatic components at a single location, there is a greater ability to detect long-term changes and distinguish between changes resulting from oil sands development versus natural variability in the physical, chemical, and biotic characteristics of the river. To date, there is at most six years of fish community data  for many reaches; however, the sampling design was developed to identify long-term trends at reaches downstream of oil sands developments, and potential differences from regional baseline ranges of variability. Furthermore, the incorporation of community analyses improves our understanding of possible relationships and consistencies in trends between fish health endpoints (e.g., reproduction, age, growth, condition of fish) and fish community endpoints (e.g., abundance, richness, diversity) over time, as shown in monitoring of the Steepbank River from 2010 to 2013.


Heather Keith has a MSc in Resource Management and Environmental Studies from the University of British Columbia, focusing on fisheries management. Ms. Keith has been with Hatfield Consultants  for nine years, managing multi-disciplinary environmental effects monitoring projects for the oil and gas, pulp-and-paper, and mining sectors. During her time at Hatfield, Heather has implemented aquatic components of environmental impact assessments, operator-specific and regional monitoring programs, and long-term monitoring plans for compensation habitat in the Athabasca oil sands region. Heather has been the program manager (2010 to 2014) and fish component lead (2007 to 2014) for the RAMP monitoring activities, now continued in support of the JOSMP.