Pictures of two fish, a sucker and a northern pike, were distributed by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation on Friday. The band has long called for better protection of the region's water.
Chief Allan Adam said he is concerned that changes to the Federal Fisheries Act will favour industrial development over the protection of fish.
The pike, which Adam said was caught near the community on Wednesday, appears to have a red lesion running down its back and more lesions on its belly. The sucker, which Adam said was also caught Wednesday, was found floating near-death on the surface. It is missing a lot of its scales.
"It ain't natural, no," Adam said in a phone interview from the fly-in community, which is on the southwestern end of Lake Athabasca near the provincial boundary with the Northwest Territories.
"At this point in time we are trying to determine what the cause of it is, but when I show it to some of the elders here in the community, they say for a fact that all of their life ... they haven't seen stuff like that happen to fish."
In 2010, the band showed off deformed fish caught in the lake to back a call for further study of water quality downstream of the oilsands. Pictures of the fish beamed around the world and became a rallying point for critics. The move came right before a tour of the region by heavyweight Hollywood director James Cameron and the First Nation was a focus of his visit.
Dave Ealey with Alberta Environment noted that there are a number of different conditions that can cause abnormalities in fish from parasites to oxygen depletion. Looking at the picture of the pike, Ealey wondered if it might have been injured escaping a net.
"I wouldn't say that it's not natural," Ealey said. "These things, they do happen naturally and we want to be able to assess which situations are as a result of human activity and which are basically showing us the normal range of unusual conditions that fish express."
There have been fish tales from the region before.
In 2008, a goldeye was caught on Lake Athabasca that appeared in a photo as if it had two mouths. While it was initially suggested the fish was an example of how pollution can mutate wildlife, a University of Alberta biologist eventually determined that the second jaw was actually the fish's tongue that was pulled through its mouth by ligaments contracting during death.
Alberta is increasing its pollution monitoring in the oilsands region after its old approach came under criticism by scientists both at home and abroad.
Just this week, the government confirmed it has moved forward on a plan for the number of monitoring sites to be increased by more than 50 per cent in the next three years. The new approach includes looking for hazardous chemicals ignored under the old plan and extending the geographic reach into Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.
Also this week, a study done by two Environment Canada scientists was publish in the Journal of Environmental Monitoring. Looking at all available monitoring data — some that went as back as far as 1978 — the researchers found that mercury levels have decreased in several species of fish in the Athabasca River and Lake Athabasca.
The report's abstract concedes that the data was gleaned from studies with different methodologies and recommends future monitoring of mercury in fish be more rigorous.
The Fisheries Act changes were woven throughout the federal government's budget implementation bill and come in two steps.
One provision comes into effect immediately. It maintains some protection of fish habitat, but gives Ottawa more leeway to allow exceptions. The second phase is to come later and will allow industrial development as long as fish deemed important for commercial or aboriginal use or for a sports fishery aren't actually killed.
Critics say that favours industrial development and resource extraction over the protection of fish habitat. Under the current system, if companies want to mine or drill or run a pipeline, they have to ensure they don't disrupt fish habitat. If they do, they must provide a new habitat for the fish.
Habitat is not the main concern under the new provisions. They look at the fish themselves.
Federal ministers say they need the new rules because too much development is held up by legislation that protects ditches, puddles and minor streams.
Ealey said the province is willing to examine the fish caught in Fort Chipewyan this week.
Adam said the fish will be sent to a Canadian Co-operative Wildlife Health Centre in Calgary for analysis.
— By Tim Cook in Edmonton.