Oil sands development can result in both temporary and permanent losses of fish and fish habitat. To offset impacts, as required by Canada’s Fisheries Act Authorizations, we need to understand and quantify the level of disturbance using a scientifically reliable, repeatable and defensible habitat measurement. The models in place to do this—the regional habitat suitability index (HSI) models—were designed using experts and scientific literature in 2008, but lacked regional validation. COSIA’s Fisheries Sustainable Habitat (FiSH) Committee was created to facilitate this HSI validation.
COSIA mining company members along with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Alberta Environment and Parks worked to develop a set of data for refining the existing HSI models. The information will be used to provide better estimates of both impacts and offsets of fish habitat in the Athabasca oil sands region in a reliable and scientifically credible manner.
Before the FiSH Committee was formed, each mining company was required to complete its own monitoring program, resulting in different data being collected, which couldn’t easily be compared. With insufficient numbers to provide a regional outlook, the HSI models could not be validated.
In response to regulatory requirements related to regional HSI validation, the FiSH Committee worked together on the Refinement of Fish Habitat Pre-Disturbance Models project enabling a more robust and consistent regional dataset that could not have been achieved if each company continued to act independently. Their collaboration brings a greater understanding to fish populations and associated habitat variables on a more regional basis, helping COSIA members to have better information about project impacts and associated offset requirements.
Developing a regional monitoring plan involved gathering each company’s existing data to determine gaps and opportunities and using it to develop a new modelling framework. The advantage is each company can validate its existing site level models on a regional basis, and learn from each other’s programs to develop a better regional model.
The project has been implemented in two phases. The first phase consisted of creating a database of existing fish and fish habitat data for individual operator’s programs. An overview of the information showed gaps and compatible data that could then be used to refine and validate the HSI models. The results showed that individual operators had substantial data for several fish species, but information was lacking for a number of key fish species, especially commercial, recreational and Aboriginal fish species. This was a result of study areas typically being located in the upper portion of tributary watersheds with small streams and wetlands. This phase also included the development of a protocols manual for future monitoring by oil sands operators.
The second phase involved the design and implementation of a three-year study focused on collecting data for key riverine species to facilitate model validation and refinement. Over the course of the study, a total of 5,241 fish from 19 species were captured, including 757 fish of the five priority species: Arctic grayling, burbot, northern pike, walleye and longnose dace. Over 30 habitat variables were measured at each mesohabitat unit, encompassing aspects of channel structure (stream size, water depth and substrate composition), habitat complexity (types of cover), water velocity, and water quality (temperature, pH and dissolved oxygen). Fish habitat modeling took place for 14 of the fish species from the Athabasca region, which included the five priority fish species as well as sucker fish (longnose sucker and white sucker) and small-bodied fish (brook stickleback, finescale dace, fathead minnow, lake chub, pearl dace, slimy sculpin, and troutperch).
A revised HSI model for each species has been proposed and is currently being reviewed by the FiSH Committee.
By sharing knowledge, resources and project-specific experience, the FiSH Committee is able to:
- Promote and foster continued improvement of efficient and effective methods for fish habitat and offset development,
- Promote and enhance fish population assessment, and
- Enhance fish habitat quantification.
“The FiSH Committee presents an opportunity for industry and government to come together in a technical nature to identify gaps and opportunities,” said Janice Linehan, senior advisor environmental policy, Suncor. “This allows us to really focus on what’s important and how we can better meet those conditions to understand the region more effectively.”
Collaborating also results in significant cost savings—up to 75 percent reduction in project costs—for pre-disturbance and model validation work.
Additionally, the FiSH Committee enhances the value of regulatory compliance requirements by moving towards a more integrated regional monitoring program to validate the regional HSI models. This means reduced redundancies with better knowledge sharing across projects, improved sampling techniques, regional habitat model refinement and optimized compensation lake designs, and sustainable habitat solutions.
Suncor has contributed to this project, along with Shell Canada, Imperial, Canadian Natural and Teck Resources Limited. It includes collaboration with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and Alberta Environment and Parks.
Members of COSIA’S FiSH Committee
The FiSH Committee is currently reviewing the second phase report, Refinement of Fish Habitat Pre-Disturbance Models, and will identify the necessary next steps once the report is finalized.