CBU professor studying aquatic life in Sydney tar ponds

By Nancy King
Cape Breton Post
Thurs., July 14, 2005

Sydney - The island's biggest environmental blight is proving to be a living laboratory for a Cape Breton University researcher studying aquatic life inside the Sydney tar ponds.

It was the toxic brew and the prospect of studying its fish life that drew Martha Jones, an assistant professor of biology at Cape Breton University, to the island in 2003. "When I came for the interview, one of the biology professors actually drove me to the tar ponds and then he took me to some estuaries in Fourchu and Gabarus and I thought, wow, it is a living laboratory, to have so many estuaries within close proximity to the university. I can get to five reference estuaries and the tar ponds within a 20-minute drive," she says. "It's been 100 years of contamination, so it's given the system time to either bounce back or at least deal with it. I'm not saying we should leave it the way it is, but it does attest to the resiliency of nature."

And most people would probably be surprised by the diversity of life she's found — including the invasive green crab — and by the health of some of the individual fish, she says, noting visiting researchers and environmental educators seem generally surprised that there is a lot of life in the tar ponds. "There's so much sewage that's been pumped in to the system, that's a big source of nutrients, there are obviously things taking advantage of that and that promotes bio-diversity," Jones says.

No one should automatically assume that fish from the tar ponds are unhealthy, she adds, noting some of them look quite healthy — with egg-carrying females and brightly-coloured males, it's likely that they could complete their courtship patterns.

Study may help residents grasp science behind remediation

Jones is comparing findings from the tar ponds with a handful of other estuaries in industrial Cape Breton, looking at the health of the different ecosystems by using minnow traps and seines to see what is and isn't present, parasites and the health of fish and their growth rates.

With the help of hired students — the work gives them marketable skills in the workplace or graduate school—she also collects information on environmental parameters and water characteristics such as salinity, temperature and dissolved oxygen.

While Tuesday they caught two large American eels in the tar ponds, Jones is currently focusing on mummichog, sil-ver-and-black killifish of salt-water marshes along the Atlantic coast. Much like counting tree rings, by counting the rings in the mummichog ear bones — which are the size of the head of a pin — Jones can estimate the number of days the fish has lived, and the growth rate of the fish.

Jones began her work last summer, before work on the interceptor sewer system started, which she says was timely because it provided baseline data which can be used to look for any changes that might result from the work. "Additionally, when they actually decide what they're going to do remediation-wise, we'll hopefully be able to follow what's going to happen in Muggah Creek and compare it to other estuaries that may be healthier."

Jones also wants to look at food webs and what is eating the prey fish she's now studying, seeing if contaminants are accumulating in their tissue.

As the community tries to grasp the science behind the tar ponds contamination and the effort to remediate it, Jones's work can offer a more tangible way to understand the cleanup and whether it is working, she suggests, rather than sinlply by looking at numbers from air, water and soil quality monitoring. "It's difficult to relate to what those numbers mean," she says. "But if they see pictures of fish that you pull out of the tar ponds, I think it gives them a different perspective, that there is life in there and nature is somewhat resilient and I think it's a good starting point to try to monitor."

She's collaborating with researchers studying other contaminated sites, such as New Bedford Harbour in Massachusetts, where it was found the mummichog population there was resistant to contaminants in that system. "I expect that's similar to what we're seeing in the tar ponds here," she says.

The research has been supported by a number of grants including a $140,000 infrastructure contribution from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation to set up the estuary bio-assessment laboratory.

The bio-monitoring component of the project can continue for the longer term, Jones said, and may prove especially useful for municipalities as they look to deal with long-standing sewage problems in communities such as Dominion. "It would be really nice to be able to monitor the effects of the money that's spent to try to restore an area, and I think fish would be a really good way to assess if what they're doing is actually having an effect," she said.

nking@cbpost. com