Over 9,000 fish dead, researchers left in the lurch

A power failure caused by a corroded switch has led to the death of over 9,000 fish in the Biological Science Aquatics Facility at the University of Alberta.

The deaths occurred between 4 p.m. on May 12 and the morning of May 13 when the switch providing power to a dechlorination system failed. A backup dechlorinating pump was in place, but it was wired to the same corroded switch.

The flood of chlorinated water in all freshwater tanks in the facilities killed:

  • 1, 093 adult trout and 6,000 trout fingerlings
  • 2,073 goldfish
  • 96 carp
  • 6 graylings
  • 75 frogs

Since the situation was discovered, the pump has been replaced and an alarm has been added to warn animal welfare staff if there is a future failure.

In a press conference on May 30, Lorne Babiuk, Vice-President (Research) of the U of A, said the fish were actively being used in research and teaching for studies focusing on environmental toxins such as hydraulic fracturing fluid, microplastics, environmental pathogens, herbicides, pesticides, and climate change. The accident has directly affected 15 researchers, as well as about 40 graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and undergraduate students. Though Babiuk said it was hard to put a number on the monetary damage, it’s estimated that up to six months of work was lost. The university is following up with anyone whose work was affected by the accident.

This incident is the second major accident to have affected research at the U of A. In early April, a freezer malfunction at the Canadian Ice Core Archive caused some of the specimens to melt, damaging 12.8 per cent of the collection. Additionally, a broken heater left over two dozen fish dead in the Koi fish pond by the Humanities Centre this winter.

Mike Belosevic, a professor in the Department of Biological Science, said that since the fish deaths will impact the research productivity of professors, it may impact their ability to get grants in the future.

Babiuk also said that the project wasn’t identified on the university’s deferred maintenance list, and that individual departments and researchers were responsible for the purchase, maintenance, and replacement for the equipment that was part of the failure. Because of that, it would be impossible to predict similar accidents in the future.

Upgrades to the facility were being planned prior to the accident with a long-term, four-phase renewal set to take five years, with the total cost at $25 million. Phase one of the project will begin as soon as possible, and $2.4 million has been secured for it. When asked if the planned upgrades would have fixed the problem causing the animal deaths, Babiuk said it “probably would not have.”

In the meantime, research at the Aquatics Facility will resume once it’s deemed safe to do so by the university and the Canadian Council on Animal Care.

“The University of Alberta regrets the loss of any animal in our care and we are doing everything possible to ensure this does not happen again,” Babiuk said.

Nathan Fung

Nathan Fung is a sixth-year political science student and The Gateway's news editor for the 2018-19 year. He can usually be found in the Gateway office, turning coffee into copy.

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