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Intro: "Chief Allan Adam, the head of the Fort Chipewyan community in the far north of Alberta, has been fishing in Lake Athabasca for all of his life. His father, now 76 years old, has been fishing there even longer. And neither of them has seen anything like what they pulled from the lake on May 30: two grotesquely deformed, lesion-covered fish."

Deformed, lesion-covered fish caught in Lake Athabasca in Alberta Canada downstream from tar sands oil mines along the Athabasca River. (photo: Earth Island Institute)
Deformed, lesion-covered fish caught in Lake Athabasca in Alberta Canada downstream from tar sands oil mines along the Athabasca River. (photo: Earth Island Institute)

Deformed Fish Found Downstream of Tar Sands Mines

By Jason Mark, Earth Island Institute

21 June 12


hief Allan Adam, the head of the Fort Chipewyan community in the far north of Alberta, has been fishing in Lake Athabasca for all of his life. His father, now 76 years old, has been fishing there even longer. And neither of them has seen anything like what they pulled from the lake on May 30: two grotesquely deformed, lesion-covered fish.

When they caught the sickly fish, each taken from a different part of the lake, the two Indigenous men immediately figured that it had something to do with the massive tar sands oil mines that lie about 300 kilometers upstream along the Athabasca River. “We have been putting two and two together, and raising concerns about the fast pace of [tar sands] development,” Chief Adam told me in a phone interview this week. “The tailing ponds are leaking and leaching into the rivers, and then going downstream to Lake Athabasca.”

Here in the United States, public opposition to the tar sands has centered on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline: how it could jeopardize the fresh water supplies of the Ogallala Aquifer and how it would increase greenhouse gas emissions by keeping us locked into the petroleum infrastructure. For now, those worries remain hypotheticals. But for the people of Ft. Chipewyan - a community of about 1,200 that is only accessible by plane most of the year - the environmental impacts of the tar sands are already a lived reality. According to a 2009 study by the Alberta Cancer Board, the cancer rate in Ft. Chipewyan is higher than normal. Many of the residents there blame the industrial development south of them for the disproportionate cancer rates.

The deformed fish caught two weeks ago included a northern pike that had lesions along its back and belly and a sucker that was missing many of its scales. Chief Adam says the strange fish are so worrisome because the majority of Ft. Chipewyan residents still rely on traditional foods, including fish from the lake, to eat.

Chief Adam sent the two fish to the labs of the Canadian Cooperative Wildlife Health Centre in Alberta for testing. It will take biologists there several weeks to determine the cause of the deformities.

This isn’t the first time that sickly fish have been pulled from Lake Athabasca. In September 2010, the Ft. Chipewyan band released photos of fish that were also lesion-covered.

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation are one of the most active and outspoken critics of the tar sands development. In 2011 the tribe filed a suit against Shell Oil Canada for failing to uphold agreements it had made for two of its open pit mine projects. Chief Adam has said that his tribe may follow the example of the Beaver Lake Cree and challenge proposed tar sands projects on the grounds that increased mining could violate the tribe’s treaty rights to practice hunting and fishing.

“They keep building and building, and something has to give,” Chief Adam says. “And it’s the environment down here in Lake Athabasca. We want answers before we want further development. If they won’t give us answers, we will give them further resistance.”

Jason Mark, Editor, Earth Island JournalJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is a writer-farmer with a deep background in environmental politics.  In addition to his work in the Earth Island Journal, his writings have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, The Progressive, Utne Reader, Orion, Gastronomica,,, E magazine, and Yes! He is a co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots and also co-author with Kevin Danaher of Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power. When not writing and editing, he co-manages Alemany Farm, San Francisco’s largest food production site. your social media marketing partner


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+27 # Glen 2012-06-21 10:21
Pollution deniers UNITE!

The evidence keeps pouring in daily, but as usual, you can bet these deformities will be blamed on something "natural", a normal cycle on the planet that deforms critters. Human beings are not oiling up the Earth for nothing, or digging the surface to dust.

Every local community must rise against further development and pollution. We cannot count on governments to do it for us.
+33 # Todd Williams 2012-06-21 11:09
I would love to tie down the CEO of Shell and force feed him those fish! These corporate pieces of shit make me sick. Once again indigenous peoples are getting screwed.
+23 # John Locke 2012-06-21 12:23
Glen: I have a great idea, all these fish should be served to congress as sushi!

We through a grand ball and make the fish abundently available buffet style! If they have no issue with the tar sands let the eat fish while we eat the cake
+11 # Glen 2012-06-21 13:23
Good ideas, Todd and John. Trouble is, all of us may already be eating fish with lesions. Oh, I'd certainly enjoy making a joke here, but won't. I'd rather do as you guys suggest and feed it to the lovelies at the top of the food chain - well, at the top for now.
+4 # John Locke 2012-06-22 09:16
No I stopped eating all fish right after the problem with the Japanese reactor became known.

I had cut down substantially when I learned fish was contaminated with mercury which has been for at least a decade now. Today The entire ocean is contaminated with radiation.

Radiation in water does not dicipate it spreads!
+3 # Glen 2012-06-22 11:54
Same here on the fish. When visiting the Gulf Coast, however, I do indulge in shrimp. That not being a continuous diet, I figure what the heck.

In the fishing regulations book in my state there are warnings concerning fishing and mercury in almost every stream. Same in many other states.

As many have stated in these threads, there are too many of us, which requires too much use of resources and corporate spew. The solution would be difficult for most. I'm fortunate in that I live in a rural area. Easy to grow food.
+21 # jwb110 2012-06-21 11:03
The Gov'ts will not come down on the side environment and safe food. I hate to say it but this Tars Sands issue is moving towards a violent re-action. Wether I like that or not, it may be the only way.
+11 # DPM 2012-06-21 11:17
Sad to say, jwb110, you are probably right. The people at the "top" will for the hand of those they oppress. It is as simple as "supply and demand".
+10 # Todd Williams 2012-06-21 14:47
He is right and I don't think it's sad to say that. This will most likely be the only way to stop these fuckers. And if the Pipeline goes under construction, then too bad if it gets destroyed.
+2 # John Locke 2012-06-24 08:28
Todd Williams: Do you not have the capacity to discuss things and make comments without resorting to language that is offensive to many readers here?
+15 # CoyoteMan50 2012-06-21 12:01
I mean how really stupid are human beings if they let these companies blunder along and make trillions of dollars in profits without ordering them to fix up their meshes.
It will take 50 to 100 years for the Earth to heal it self after we start to repair it.
I hope you don't need to much clean air to breathe.
+16 # carolsj 2012-06-21 12:17
The attempts to keep the fossil fuel system going in the face of dwindling supply are getting more desperate. The remaining fuel is getting more difficult and dangerous to extract and we wind up with tar sands and frakking, both of which are poisoning our water, which is ultimately a more precious commodity. We really need to develop alternate energy that won't poison us, and that doesn't include nuclear, which is just as dangerous. If we put the money and effort into developing safe alternatives that we are putting into increasingly complicated fossil fuels we could have a clean energy system up and going that would have a safe and sustainable future.
+13 # ABen 2012-06-21 12:25
For all rational human beings, the #1 moral issue of our time should be the health and welfare of this fragile earth on which me must live! This used to be a non-partisan issue before the GOP became the stooges of Vulture Capitalism.
+5 # grouchy 2012-06-21 12:58
+3 # Phlippinout 2012-06-21 22:31
What horrible stewards of the earth we are. We pay big bucks to our government to oversee this crap and they have failed, failed failed. Why bother funding these loser leaders who chase the dollar and betray us all for a profit! I dont care what party you are in, you must feel the extreme anger and disgust of the money that is spent to keep us in the dark! From tree hugger to hunter, we all want the same things, a reasonable intelligence to run our affairs. Instead we have crooks selling us all out to the highest bidder, what fools we have become!
+6 # Nell H 2012-06-22 10:19
Why do people in the US want the pipeline?

The oil will be shipped abroad. It will do nothing for our supply of gasoline. There will be a few jobs during construction, although some jobs will go to Canadians. What benefit do we get?
+3 # Glen 2012-06-23 07:50
Folks want the pipeline because they have fallen for the government propaganda concerning jobs provided, using domestic oil, and all other bogus reasons. They are not the least interested in whether the oil is expensive to retrieve, how dirty that oil is, or the possibility of terrible environmental disasters.
+7 # seeuingoa 2012-06-22 13:17
What does it take for Americans to wake up?

Why do you need catastrophic events like
tar-sand/fish deformation...

what is wrong with you?

Is it, that you don´t know,
you don´t want to know and
you simply don´t care?
0 # Bruce Gruber 2012-06-29 06:48
We are too busy trying to pay 24% credit card bills urged by corporate/propa gandized advertising techniques (while earning less than 1% on our deposits - lent back to us by the same financial institutions).

We are too busy trying to salvage our jobs that disappear to third world 'sweatshop/no benefit' multinational subsidiaries as they dismantle our middle class at home and throw peanuts to a new wage class overseas.

Meanwhile we are implored to swallow the "work ethic" while 'work' declines with the advantages of technological/c omputerized/non -human robotics.
AND ... as drones, we seek to find someone or SOMETHING to blame for the complexity we can hardly grasp and over which we exert little or no control - the OTHER... yesterday it was unions who stood in the way of 'progress'. Today it's the BLACK guy who somehow is imbued with puppet master qualities over a "BIG GOVERNMENT fiction. It isn't "big" government! It is EXPENSIVE government!
As we have outsourced PUBLIC service to "private" enterprise, we have ADDED the 20-40% overhead and profit of Wall Street 'thinking' to the cost of the goods and services it takes to provide "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" ... and we have abandoned MOST of all three principles to get here.
No wonder our collective depression and frustration are rampant. From the police (following orders) to keep their jobs and prevent 'OCCUPYtion' to the drinkers of 'frack' water ... it all feels downhill.

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