These trout will be swimming in water from Alberta. ((CBC))

Some UPEI researchers are looking into what is making fish sick in the Alberta oilsands and what can be done about it.

Natasha Hogan and Michael van den Heuvel will spend the next two years travelling back and forth between Alberta and P.E.I., testing Alberta fish for disease.

"There are compounds in the water that could be affecting the fish," Hogan told CBC News on Tuesday.

"We're looking at how waste products, the water that is left over from oilsand extractions, actually might affect fish in the region."

Oil companies are turning old mining sites into ponds and there are worries about chemical contamination. UPEI has been conducting research on this for about 10 years, but only on site in Alberta. This new project will take a different approach. Water from the ponds will be transported to UPEI and put into aquariums so fish can be studied in the laboratory.

"It's an important symbol how we're developing capability here on the Island, at University of Prince Edward Island," said van den Heuvel.

"That expertise is high class in Canada, but also world class."

Signs of stress

Earlier this year, the researchers tested yellow perch in Alberta ponds and found there were some problems.


Biologist Michael van den Heuvel wants to know exactly what is stressing the fish. (CBC)

"We're seeing lesions on them, we're seeing some fin erosion," said Hogan.

"This is common kinds of diseases that you see in even aquarian fish. It's just a sign that they are being stressed."

The laboratory research will focus on how the water affects rainbow trout, a fish with which researchers are more accustomed to dealing.

"We have very many more tools to be able to understand what chemicals may be causing these problems, and how those chemicals are causing these problems," said van den Heuvel.

"That in turn leads to being able to develop solutions."

Van den Heuvel and Hogan have secured $500,000 for the project from various sources, including the oil industry.

The research will end in 2011 and it has two goals: to determine the best way to build ponds on old oilsands sites and whether it is practical to introduce fish to them at all.