Alberta fish deformities prompt call to reopen Experimental Lakes Area

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University of Alberta ecologist David Schindler holds an example of a deformed fish found in the Athabasca watershed in 2010.

After studying deformities found in fish downriver from the Athabasca oil sands, University of Alberta ecologist Dr. David Schindler is calling on the Federal government to keep the Experimental Lakes Area open to study the problem.

According to Schindler's letter to both Environment Minister Peter Kent and Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield, which was reprinted by CBC News, recent studies have shown deformities in fish in the Athabasca River, and these types of deformities have been reported by local residents going back to the 1990s. According to the CBC News article, Schindler included pictures of some of the deformities found, which included fish with bulging eyes, open sores, and even ones with two tails.

[ Related: Fish deformities linked to oil pollution in U.S. and Alberta ]

These same deformities were, according to the letter, seen in fish after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, which spilled hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil into the waters off of Alaska, the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster that discharged nearly 5 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and near heavy industries on the Great Lakes.

The letter specifically stated:

"Given the parallels in the cases from various locations, it seems likely that some chemical or suite of chemicals in crude oil is causing the malformations."

Schindler praised Environment Canada scientists for their efforts in monitoring the river, but also pointed out the limitations of monitoring chemicals in the river, and suggested a better solution would be for the government to reconsider their decision to close or privatize the Experimental Lakes Area (ELA), which is located near Kenora, in northwestern Ontario.

The letter went on to say:

"A more expeditious way of identifying [the cause] would be whole ecosystem experiments where small amounts of selected chemicals are applied to whole lakes, and effects determined on several key species in the food chain. Short term, laboratory studies are unsuitable, because to protect whole ecosystems, it is the response to long-term, chronic exposure that we must know."

"I propose that the ELA site and laboratory should be kept open to conduct these important experiments, which have implications for future effects of oil extraction and transport in or near both marine and freshwater ecosystems."

The government cut the ELA's budget last year and, while they are still searching for private institutions to take over funding the giant outdoor laboratory, operations there were shut down last month. This suspension in operations at the ELA, as well as any possibility of privatizing the laboratory, has drawn wide condemnation from the scientific community, as the publicly-accessible research conducted there has been invaluable to public safety. The most notable are the science conducted that led to the Air Quality Agreement (also called the Acid Rain Treaty) between Canada and the United States in 1991, and the rooting out of phosphates in detergents as the cause of massive algae blooms in the Great Lakes and surrounding river systems.

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Will Schindler's letter sway the government from their decision? He was the director of the ELA for over 20 years and is an active member of the group 'Save ELA', so he has a strong voice on the matter. He gave excellent arguments for exactly why the ELA is the perfect laboratory to conduct this kind of research and why other laboratories just can't measure up. However, the somewhat 'canned' responses that CBC News received from the Ministers' offices aren't very encouraging, so it seems doubtful that it had much of an effect.

(Photo courtesy: Jason Franson / The Canadian Press)

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