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Selenium accumulation and effects in aquatic organisms downstream of uranium mining and milling operations in northern Saskatchewan



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The overall objective of this thesis was to determine selenium (Se) levels in the major compartments of aquatic ecosystems and correlate these data with potential Se effects on early life stages of two native fish species. This work was conducted at two uranium (U) mines located in northern Saskatchewan, Key Lake mine and McClean Lake mine. In addition, a site fidelity study was conducted at Key Lake mine to evaluate movement patterns of northern pike inhabiting lakes receiving effluent discharges. At Key Lake mine, Se was accumulated and biomagnified several orders of magnitude higher than its concentration in water (0.7-2.7 µg/L) in lakes receiving discharges, with Se in prey organisms reaching levels above the proposed 3-11 µg/g dry weight (DW) dietary toxicity threshold for fish. Increased concentrations of Se in aquatic biota led to an increase in the Se concentrations in eggs and tissues of northern pike that rely on these organisms as food sources. Furthermore, increases in the incidence of Se-induced deformities above 30% were recorded in fry originating from adults exposed to high levels of dietary Se (> 3µg/g, DW). The increased frequency of deformities found in northern pike fry was associated with a significant increase in the level of Se in northern pike eggs from exposure sites (31.28 - 48.23 µg/g DW) compared to reference (3.19 ± 0.29 µg/g DW). At McClean Lake mine, Se was accumulated and biomagnified through the aquatic food chain with concentrations in some biota groups (e.g., forage fish) exceeding the lower limit (> 3µg/g DW) of the 3-11µg/g (DW) threshold for dietary Se toxicity in fish. Although both northern pike and white sucker females collected from the exposure site showed greater levels of Se in egg and tissues compared to fish collected from a reference site (likely caused by exposure to elevated levels of Se in prey organisms), no increases in Se-induced deformities were found in the developing fish larvae. The lack of a toxic response in fish larvae is in agreement with Se thresholds for early life stage deformities, with egg Se concentrations in northern pike and white sucker collected at the exposure site below the proposed 10 µg/g (DW) threshold associated with the presence of developmental abnormalities. The applicability of the proposed 7.91 µg/g (whole body, DW) Se toxicity threshold to cold water fish is controversial given that most of the research has focused on warm water fish. Therefore, there is an urgent need to conduct studies that allow us to better understand the environmental fate and effects of Se in north temperate (cold water) aquatic systems. The results of my research will contribute valuable information for the establishment of a realistic and environmentally relevant Se threshold for the protection of fish populations in Canadian waters. During the site fidelity study, fish locations were seasonally and daily recorded using a Lotek SRX_400 receiver with handheld Yagi antenna. The results suggest that tagged pike did not migrate out of the study area throughout the study period, with the mean distance traveled ranging from 50 to 400 m. Differences in movement (distance traveled) and home range were found between reference and exposure sites. Overall data suggest that radio-telemetry is a useful tool in environmental studies. This information on northern pike behavior will be valuable towards developing non-lethal sampling methods that could be applied for assessing the effects of industrial discharges in north temperate aquatic ecosystems.



Fish Behaviour, Home Range, Biomagnification, Reproduction, Freshwater Fish, Metal Mining, Selenium



Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)






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