Disturbance Related Patterns in Fish Community Structure and Function in River Systems of the Lower Athabasca Oil Sands Region, Alberta




McFadyen, Shannon Ashley

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Anthropogenic development is altering watersheds and threatening freshwater ecosystems and the resources therein. Direct impacts of industry including conversion of land cover and increased water withdrawals from rivers, compounded with indirect influences such as climate change, collectively affect the health and sustainability of freshwater ecosystems. Many studies have indicated a suite of ecological impacts that large-scale anthropogenic land use and development impose on the structure and function of riverine systems. The overarching goal of this thesis was to examine the potential impacts associated with land use disturbance and Oil Sands (OS) mining operations on fish community composition patterns in three rivers located in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region (AOSR). Using historical data sets, this thesis attempted to evaluate disturbance-related patterns in fish community composition. Fish community-environmental relationships were investigated on a temporal scale, across which community composition could be constrained or altered by development. Structural and trait-based changes in fish community composition were analyzed to determine whether significant variation between levels of development (pre versus post) in the AOSR could be attributed to observed changes in fish community metrics. No significant difference in community composition patterns was observed between levels of development; however, there was a significant decline in fish species richness on a regional scale. The lack of significant results could be attributed to the limitations of the collected data, including temporal gaps, inconsistent sampling methods, and seasonal sampling inconsistencies. Furthermore, the scale of interpretation between individual tributaries and the regional datasets, demonstrates that studies of fish communities on a regional scale can elucidate different states of community change, implying that local controls can play a role in species presence/absence. An assessment of the features and patterns of the hydrograph that could explain variation in fish communities was constrained due to dataset and subsequent methodological limitations. Currently, there is an inability to link changes (historical) to hydrologic regimes, land use or development within these systems, and how they have impacted fish communities therein due to inconsistencies in the methods and sampling during most of the pre-development and for a portion of post- development time span (until 2009). Long-term, standardized community monitoring will be critical to gain a greater understanding of how land management practices affect fish communities and what kind of ecosystem management can mitigate impacts to streams, rivers and the biota therein. Further recommendations were made from synthesizing these findings in conjunction with relevant literature and are intended to provide an improved understanding of the long-term cumulative changes within these systems and to help guide and improve future monitoring plans in the AOSR.



Fish community, Community ecology, Athabasca Oil Sands Region