Just like our own fingerprints are unique and used for identification purposes, scientists at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre have used high-resolution “fingerprinting” analysis to confirm that oil from the MV Marathassa spread throughout Vancouver’s harbour and Burrard Inlet following the leak of bunker C fuel from the ship on April 8.

Oil samples were collected by the Vancouver Aquarium team immediately following the oil spill April 8.

Oil samples were collected by the Vancouver Aquarium team immediately following the oil spill April 8.

In the first days after the incident, Dr. Peter Ross, director of Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Pollution Research Program, and members of his team collected more than two dozen samples of water, sediment and shellfish for forensic lab analysis. Researchers also submitted a sample of oil from the ship for testing and comparison. Although costly and time consuming, high-resolution analysis is the only way to conclusively prove the source or sources of hydrocarbons in the environment. Data from the lab was analyzed by Dr. Ross, as well as by Dr. Carmen Morales, a research scientist who specializes in sediment contamination, and by Dr. Mark Yunker, an internationally recognized expert on hydrocarbon source, transport and fate.

The fingerprinting techniques used by the team constitute a powerful tool, said Dr. Ross. “It allows us to characterize the contributions of different sources to complex mixtures observed in marine sediments. We can positively identify the source of the spill and the spread of this fuel throughout our coastal waters.”

Oil spill analysis by Vancouver Aquarium

Map of sample sites used by Vancouver Aquarium scientists.

The high-resolution analysis carried out on samples collected from the shoreline, deep sediments, water and mussels has conclusively demonstrated that oil from the MV Marathassa did reach the shores of Stanley Park and parts of Burrard Inlet, including Lumberman’s Arch Beach and New Brighton Beach. The oil signature from the MV Marathassa and affected areas differed from that of other hydrocarbons frequently encountered in coastal B.C. (such as  Alberta oil and Vancouver Island coal), and from mixed source patterns seen in sediments from Vancouver Harbour, the Fraser River and the Strait of Georgia.

“The results provide an excellent snapshot of the spill and the extent of its spread in the days following the incident,” said Dr. Ross. “Although this ‘snapshot’ study was not designed to replace a full environmental impact assessment or to document ecosystem recovery over time, the results do play a critical role in forensically establishing the source of the oil.”

C1-FP peaks Marathassa Results-page-001 (1)

The hydrocarbon fingerprint from several shoreline sites around English Bay and Burrard Inlet (depicted here by samples from Lumberman’s Arch Beach and New Brighton Beach) match the sample of Bunker fuel from the MV Marathassa, and differ markedly from patterns observed in harbour samples collected before the spill (depicted here by a sample of Burrard Inlet sediment). The similar three methylpyrene peaks on the right side of each sample (labelled ‘P’; coloured dark blue) serve to link the Marathassa oil to the affected sites. These represent ion chromatograms using a Gas Chromatograph-Mass Spectrometer.

Of note was that several samples readily exceeded current Canadian Environmental Quality Guidelines for the Protection of Aquatic Life. Exceedances of these guidelines were observed in shoreline sediment samples from sites from Second Beach to English Bay Beach. Specific hydrocarbons exceeding these guidelines included Naphthalene, Acenaphthylene, Acenaphthene, Fluorene, Phenanthrene, Anthracene, Fluoranthene, Pyrene, Benz[a]anthracene, Chrysene, Benzo[a]pyrene and Dibenz[a,h]anthracene. Seawater samples collected during the two days after the spill between Second Beach and English Beach also exceeded guidelines for Phenanthrene, Fluoranthene, Pyrene,

Benz[a]anthracene and Benzo[a]pyrene. These results indicate that aquatic organisms in the affected areas may have been exposed to harmful levels as a result of the spill.

In May 2014, Vancouver Aquarium launched the Coastal Ocean Research Institute to measure and monitor the health of coastal ecosystems on Canada’s west coast. The Institute is working to establish a baseline for how our marine ecosystems are currently doing and to deepen our understanding of future changes.

“We’re very concerned about the release, accidental or otherwise, of harmful pollutants into our coastal waters as hydrocarbons present a risk to all manner of ocean life,” said Dr. Ross. “This incident highlighted the importance of having baseline data against which to compare these and other results.” Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre is currently developing an initiative that will collect data from multiple sites on B.C.’s coast.

The high-resolution analysis of these samples and others collected after the April 8 spill are being further examined and will be written up over the coming months for publication in an international scientific publication.

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