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Too Soon To Gauge Oil Spill Impacts On Yellowstone River Fish

Pallid sturgeon.
USFWS Midwest (CC-BY-2.0)

It could be weeks, if not months before scientists understand the implications of last week's oil spill on aquatic life in the Yellowstone River. There have been no reported fish kills at this point.

"That's not to say there isn't some, but the real impact is that we're going to need to evaluate is going to be the chronic mortalities, the delayed mortalities, the long-term fish health concerns and also reproduction concerns once the fish are spawning in the spring."

That's Trevor Selch of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The fisheries pollution biologist says scientists at the spill site are sending him fish samples to study. Selch also researched the impacts of a separate oil spill on the Yellowstone in 2011.

In both cases, officials issued fish-consumption advisories.

"It's just a precautionary measure. Typically the  contaminants of concern don't occur in the muscle tissues of fish. That's what we found in 2011. The muscle tissues had all non-detect concentrations in the fish that we captured. We're trying to do the same thing here just to make sure that something isn't different."

The stretch of the Yellowstone polluted by last weekend's spill of an estimated 40,000 gallons of oil is rich with aquatic life: catfish, crappie, bluegill and perch, not to mention the paddlefish and endangered pallid sturgeon. The latter produces a prized caviar.

FWP's Bob Gibson says there's a chance the Paddlefish escaped the worst of the spill.

"Those Paddlefish migrate a lot. They're big, clumsy looking things, but boy do they ever move in the water; particularly the juveniles. (They) go downstream clear into the North Dakota reservoirs to spend the winter. I don't think anyone knows right now if there are paddlefish under the ice now."

Pallid Sturgeon may not have been so lucky. They're a closely-monitored and in some cases radio-tagged species. Some have been detected in the contaminated waters. Researchers won't know how the crude is affecting them until the ice breaks up:

"But the problem is,  if it's been three months, or two months before that ice goes out some of that may have attenuated. Certainly any fish that were killed immediately by the oil  will have either washed downstream or deteriorated in two months, so it may be difficult to judge the severity of the damage to the fishery resource."

O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at
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