Director, Monitoring Priority Area
To continue to learn more about how the oil sands industry impacts its environment, sometimes we need to revisit old data and look at it from a slightly different and fresh perspective. That’s exactly what researchers in the Monitoring Priority Area (MPA) did with some of the fish data from industry and the Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP).
“Thirty years of fish data from the RAMP database, from the late ‘80s to 2014, was widely criticized for a variety of issues, including a perceived lack of sensitivity,” identifies Kelly Munkittrick, COSIA’s MPA director. “In that period, industry oil sands fish monitoring focused on a few key indicator species and the community level and how many fish species lived in the study areas. The community inventory program would count how many fish were captured in an area, and then track if these inventories went up or down from season to season, and year to year.”
As part of its ongoing effort to develop a structured interpretation framework for identifying changes in the environment, COSIA took a different approach to reviewing the old RAMP data. One of the challenges with many monitoring programs is the absence of a baseline of historical data for comparison. The MPA started with the earliest fish inventory data available to assess what may be expected to change year over year as the data accumulated over time. The review was also simplified by looking only at adult fish and at sites that were regularly sampled. From 2007 on, both white sucker and walleye species showed increasing length and weight, but only in the spring. Other species, including lake whitefish, northern pike, troutperch, lake chub and flathead chub, did not show similar changes.
“There are lots of reasons for why this may have happened,” says Kelly. “What’s significant is that by using historical data to predict what you expect to see, you can cut through the noise in the data and recognize change. Using sentinel, or gatekeeper, species, and looking for changes in measures like normal size can be a much more sensitive approach. Detecting differences from an expected “normal range” means we can start to look for reasons for the change sooner than if we were only looking at something more drastic, like the overall number of the species as a whole.”
COSIA’s paper on the review of the RAMP data will be released early in 2017, and also presented to members of the oil sands monitoring community at various conferences and seminars. The research demonstrates how we can speed up the time between monitoring or research and recognizing changes by creating a system with set stages for review and defined mechanisms to move between levels of analysis.
“It points again to the benefit of a tiered and triggered approach to environmental monitoring,” says Kelly. “In the case of the RAMP data, if we’d been using triggers to look at normal fish size range, and using a consistent approach over time, we could have moved into the next phase of analysis—the cause of change phase—as early as 2009, instead of only starting to look at it now.”
RAMP monitoring was moved into the Joint Oil Sands Monitoring program, and the community inventory was put on hold in 2014. Attempts to restart a spring inventory were delayed again due to the wildfires in the Fort McMurray area this year. COSIA hopes it will begin again in 2017. The data will help researchers continue to learn more about fish populations in the oil sands region.