Investigating the cumulative effects of environmental change and human activity on the Tathlina watershed; sub-activity fish health

Project keywords: Tathlina, aquatic health, fish, macroinvertebrates, paleolimnology

Name of project lead:  Component of broader project (MacLatchy, Lister and Wilkie on sub- activity)

Project team/partners: For each collaborator please specify: Team member name, role, organization and contact information

Shawn Laidlaw, Project Coordinator; Environmental Coordinator, Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation,

Mike Palmer, Scientific Coordinator; AANDC-CIMP

Peter Redvers, KFTN Coordinator; Crosscurrent Associates: Liason between scientific program and community.

Deb MacLatchy, Mike Wilkie, Andrea Lister, Wilfrid Laurier University; Gerald Tetreault, Colin Gallagher, Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

Fred Simba, George Simba and Lloyd Chicot, Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation.

Krista Chin, AANDC-CIMP; George Low, AAROM; Mike Low, AAROM; Jen Lento, University of New Brunswick; Joseph Culp, Environment Canada.

Mike Pisaric, Carleton University; Josh Thienpont, Carleton University; Josh Kurek, Queens University; Jules Blais, University of Ottawa; Jennifer Korosi, Univeristy of Ottawa.

Allicia Kelly and Brett Elkin, GNWT-ENR; Xiaowa Wang and Derek Muir, Environment Canada, Burlington, ON; Judit Smits, University of Calgary

Status: In Progress

Location: 63° 51′ 0′′ N, 117° 44′ 0′′ W; Tathlina Lake

Year and month project started: April 2012

Anticipated completion year of project? March 2013, funding ends; analyses continuing; renewal application submitted

Executive year of project (example, year 1 or 2 or 3…) Year 1

Brief project description: (objectives and rationale) From the proposal, the purpose of this project was to:

1. Coordinate monitoring and research efforts in the watershed between the community, government, and universities;

2. Understand current aquatic health of the watershed using water quality, macroinvertebrates, aquatic furbearers and fish as indicators of ecosystem health;

3. Understand historical environmental change and contaminant loading in the watershed using paleoecological techniques from lake sediment cores; and

4. To develop a regional, community-based water quality monitoring program for the watershed to monitor disturbance and future change in the watershed.

As described in proposal:
 Activity 1 – Assessing the current health of the aquatic system in the Tathlina watershed

Regional water quality monitoring program (Laidlaw, KTFN; Palmer and Chin, AANDC) 
Quarterly water quality sampling will occur throughout the watershed (East Cameron, West Cameron, Upper Kakisa River, Middle Kakisa River, and the head of the Lower Kakisa River at the community of Kakisa) as part of a regional water quality monitoring program.
Continuous instream water quality loggers will be deployed in several of these streams to track seasonal variability in physical parameters in the watershed. This information will be used by paleoecologists and fish biologists in the project as they strive to understand abiotic conditions in the lake and how these conditions have changed over time. Access to the sample sites will be via snowmobile during winter and by float plane in spring, summer and fall. Samples collected will be analyzed by Taiga Environmental Laboratory in Yellowknife, NT for various physical parameters, nutrients, major ions, hydrocarbons, and 27 trace metals. The last of these results should be received by January 2013. Summation of study and final results will be produced by February/March 2013.

(CABIN) Macrobenthic sampling of streams in the Cameron Hills (Chin, AANDC; Laidlaw, KTFN; Lento, UNB; Culp, EC)

In order to develop an understanding of the influence of development in the Cameron Hills on the aquatic health of Tathlina watershed, aquatic sampling of low order streams in the Cameron Hills will be completed using Environment Canada’s CABIN protocol ( In July 2012, a reconnaissance of the area will be conducted to locate appropriate sampling sites. Sites that are downstream from disturbance and sites that are not influenced directly by disturbance will be identified. Approximately 20 – 25 streams will be sampled in early September 2012. Both water and benthic macroinvertebrate samples will be collected at each site. Nutrients, major ions, hydrocarbons, total suspended solids and alkalinity will be measured, and invertebrates identified and counted in a lab. Furthermore, on-site water quality measurements (e.g. temperature, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, pH, specific conductance) and reach characteristics (e.g. habitat types present, canopy cover, macrophyte coverage, streamside vegetation, periphyton coverage), substrate characteristics and channel measurements (e.g. water velocity, stream width, depth) will also be taken. Water samples will be analyzed by mid-late September 2012 and benthic macroinvertebrate samples identified and counted by January 2013. Data will then be entered into the national CABIN database hosted by Environment Canada. Data analysis and interpretation will be conducted in January/February 2013.

c. Fish health in Tathlina Lake (MacLatchy and Wilkie, WLU; Tetreault, UW; Gallagher, DFO)

Researchers from Wilfrid Laurier University will partner with DFO scientists during the winter stock assessment to evaluate fish health in Tathlina Lake. The goal will be to sample 20 males and 20 females of two fish species for body length, body weight, liver weight, gonad weight and ovarian development, and scales or otoliths for aging. Calculation of condition factor (K=W/L3), liver somatic index (liver weight/body weight X 100), gonadosomatic index (gonad weight/body weight X 100), size at age, etc. will provide measures of health of fish populations in the lake as per the guidance for the Environmental Effects Monitoring program as mandated through the Fisheries Act for various industries. Reproductive endocrine status will be assessed by measurement of reproductive steroid levels in collected tissue and/or blood samples to assess the potential impact of source water reproductive contaminants. Fuel reserves in the fish will be measured to help researchers understand energetic/nutritional status of the fish and how well they have been feeding. Fish health measures will be compared to those of other fish populations in similar lakes in the region as funds from other sources permit (this was begun in early 2013). Tissue samples will be collected and analysed for contaminants.

d. Contaminants in aquatic furbearers (Laidlaw, KTFN; Kelly and Elkin, ENR; Wang and Muir, EC; Smits, University of Calgary)
Mink is a top trophic level carnivore that readily bioaccumulates environmental pollutants such as PCBs, DDT-related compounds, and methyl mercury. Mink is a sensitive indicator of ecosystem health as even low levels of PCBs can affect reproduction. A suite of metals including mercury and OC compounds including PCBs will be assessed in mink in this watershed. Samples will be collected by KTFN trappers as part of their regular harvesting activities and may also be collected as part of community environmental monitoring and on- the-land youth education activities. For each animal, the collection date, location and description of the habitat where collected will be recorded. Carcasses will be frozen until processed at the ENR Fort Smith laboratory, where the sex, weight and body condition indices will be recorded. Stomach content analysis will be conducted for each mink carcass to determine the prey species consumed. Age will be determined from tooth cementum analysis of a lower canine. Stable isotope analyses (ä13C and ä15N) will be also be conducted to characterize the trophic relationships in the food web. Liver, kidney and fat (inguinal pad) samples will be collected from the mink carcasses. Liver samples will be used for current contaminant analysis, and other samples will be banked for future use. A technical report and a plain language summary on the contaminant monitoring will be written upon completion of the study and analysis. The results will be presented in the community. Results will be provided to the Northwest Territories Regional Contaminants Committee to discuss the significance and communication of the results.

Activity 2: Understanding historical environmental change and contaminant loading in Tathlina watershed

Investigating environmental change in the watershed (Pisaric and Thienpont, Carleton; Kurek, Queens)
Lake sediment cores will be collected in the western portion of Tathlina Lake and sections will be Pb-210 dated and analyzed for diatoms, chironomids, charcoal and inferred sedimentary chlorophyll a to reconstruct historic climate and abiotic/biotic conditions of Tathlina Lake. Our lake sediment analyses will allow us to reconstruct a number of parameters important for this study. Charcoal pieces preserved in the lake sediment will be enumerated to determine the past occurrence of forest fires in this region during the last several centuries and perhaps longer. The occurrence of fire in the lake watershed can have important impacts on lake systems due to increased nutrient and sediment flux for example. Nutrient fluxes can influence chemical parameters in the lake including dissolved oxygen (DO). Changes in the concentration of DO can have important consequences for fish populations. Using the lake sediment records, we will reconstruct the fire history for this region. Chironomids will provide a record of DO levels and the relationship between these two parameters will be examined through our studies. These results will also be analysed with respect to fish population records that have been assembled during the past several decades to determine the influence of fire on the aquatic system of Tathlina Lake. The remains of diatoms (algae) and sedimentary inferences of chlorophyll a will be used to determine how primary production has changed over time, as well as potentially determine the timing and impact of recent climate change on Tathlina Lake.

Investigating contaminant loading to Tathlina watershed (Blais and Korosi, UOttawa) 
Sediment cores will be collected in receiving waters downstream of the Cameron Hills oil and gas development area as well as reference headwater lakes in the region to investigate recent and historic contaminant loading to the Tathlina watershed. Sediment cores will be collected in waterbodies of the Cameron River delta and sectioned using well established protocols. Cores will be radiometrically dated by lead-210, radium-226, and cesium-137 activities to establish chronologies of sediment deposition. These dated sediment sections will be analyzed for contaminants, including metals (mercury, cadmium, arsenic, copper, zinc, and others) as well as pyrogenic and petrogenic hydrocarbons (polycyclic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and alkylated PAHs) to assess the effect of upstream oil developments on the Cameron River watershed. We will also sample benthic invertebrate populations in these systems and analyze these for the same contaminants listed above to determine whether these contaminants are accumulating in the benthic aquatic food chain leading to humans.

Objectives have been met to date on the Laurier fish health activity. One winter sampling (December 2012) occurred in Lake Tathlina; additional sampling occurred in early 2013. Laboratory analyses of tissue samples are presently underway in Wilkie and MacLatchy laboratories. If additional funding is achieved, additional lakes will be added to better understand regional issues related to environmental change.

Significance of the results (rationale): / project linkages

This is a multidisciplinary project that is coordinated by the Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation, and is a direct result of specific research questions developed by the community. The community will play a lead role in logistical and administrative support for the project and will provide field support to the various research teams. AANDC staff worked with the KTFN and Dehcho AAROM to implement the regional water quality program and to undertake CABIN sampling in the fall of 2012. Dehcho AAROM provided CABIN training to members of the community that will be involved in the field program. Researchers from Carleton University, Queen’s University and the University of Ottawa were responsible for undertaking the paleolimnology work, and worked with community members to select appropriate sites for sampling. Staff from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans worked with researchers from Wilfrid Laurier University (Lister, Tetreault) and the community during the winter stock assessment to undertake work on fish health in the watershed. KTFN staff and trappers collected the wildlife samples for the aquatic furbearers component of the program. ENR-GNWT and CCIW staff conducted necropsies and conduct contaminant analysis. CIMP staff played a coordination role and also provide a communication link between the researchers and the community.

Key deliverables and reporting: Link to needs of NWT

The cumulative effects of environmental change and multiple resources pressures on the aquatic system of the Tathlina watershed are poorly understood. Significant oil and gas development occurs in the watershed and the influence of this activity on the watershed has not been determined. A commercial fishery has been in operation since the 1950s in Tathlina Lake. Fish stocks have fluctuated multiple times in the lake prior to and since commercial fishing began with little understanding of what drives fluctuations. Interactions between harvest levels and the abiotic conditions of the lake likely play an important role in recruitment to the fishery, but these interactions have not been investigated. Forest fires regularly occur in the region and likely influence the aquatic system via sediment and nutrient loading, and may contribute to fluctuations in fish stocks. An understanding of how each of these multiple perturbations affect the aquatic system will help researchers understand the cumulative effects of anthropogenic and natural influences on the Tathlina watershed.

Northern decision makers require up to date environmental information to make sound environmental management decisions. The Tathlina Lake area has experienced rapid resource development in recent decades and there is renewed development interest in other parts of the watershed. Information generated from this program will be used by resource managers and communities in land use planning and environmental assessment activities. This information will also contribute to the understanding of fish stock dynamics in Tathlina Lake, which drives quota limits for the commercial fishery.

Reporting plan:

The stream ecology data will be archived on Environment Canada’s CABIN website. Additional water quality data will also be housed on the NTGO water and sediment quality database

A plain language summary of project activities and preliminary results will be prepared for regional circulation.

A multi-stakeholder meeting will be held in community at the end of next fiscal to report results to community.

Research results will be reported in venues where decision makers are present. DFN leadership, environmental conferences,, 2012 GSF, and other relevant conferences venues.

The CIMP website or the NWT Geoportal will link data users or the interested public to the results of this project.

Results will be disseminated to the national and international scientific community at numerous conferences by project partners.

Engagement, training and capacity building

This is a multidisciplinary project that is coordinated by the Ka’a’gee Tu First Nation, and is a direct result of specific research questions developed by the community. Information that is collected by individual partners will be used by other partners in addressing their particular research questions, the result being a more holistic approach to environmental research in the north. Perhaps most importantly, this project lessens the burden on the community by having a single communication plan that reports on all the projects at once. It also decreases the amount of logistical and administrative work for the KTFN that would be associated with each individual project. The community played a lead role in logistical and administrative support for the project and provided field support to the various research teams.

Project progress. 


This project has responded to a community concern regarding the aquatic health and long- term sustainability of fishing in Tathlina Lake. Community support was provided to undertake field work. Results are in process and not yet at a stage for communication or to identify impacts on knowledge in field of study, contribution to decision-making, etc.

Links to WSIPlan and NWT Science Agenda

This project links to the Water Stewardship Action Plan in that it focuses on: working together (numerous community, academic and government researchers) who by acting together have increased capacity for knowledge development and mobilization; enhancing knowledge through implementation of multi-disciplinary aquatic monitoring through a research program working with the community; and planning to deliver to decision-makers the information necessary to make well- reasoned decisions.

2.1 Know and Plan – Aquatic Ecosystems, Water Quality and Quantity: Considerable research and monitoring efforts is needed to more fully understand aquatic ecosystems, water quality and quantity in the NWT. Knowledge gaps must be identified to set priorities for filling those gaps. Development of consistent research and monitoring protocols and water valuation/ecosystems services methodologies can assist in monitoring and mitigating impacts and cumulative effects on NWT waters.

2.1 D, E, G, I

2.2 Know and Plan – Community-based Monitoring: Community-based monitoring fosters a wide range of innovations, including increased awareness of water stewardship issues, improved traditional knowledge collection and application as well as increased, direct community involvement in research and monitoring program design. Opportunities for community-based research and monitoring programs are being explored and pilot projects funded, including transboundary watersheds.

2.2 A, B

Key project tasks for next year (work plan pieces – research)

The longer-term objective is to apply for subsequent CIMP funding to support a project with expanded sampling and goals related to sampling during different times of the year and at comparator lakes with differing levels of potential contamination.

Key project tasks for next year (work plan pieces – engagement, training and capacity building)

Depending on funding available, we will coordinate with the community members and DFO to undertake sampling throughout the year and at multiple lakes. At the moment, plans are too preliminary to determine potential.

Published Papers