Habitat & Species
Aquatic habitat and species in the Athabasca sub-basin are undergoing moderate change. This assessment is based on observations of changes in the abundance and health condition of some fish and furbearer species as reported by Indigenous communities. Less healthy fish with deformities and tumours and mass fish die-offs in some lakes have been observed by Indigenous communities and local residents of the middle and lower Athabasca watersheds. Studies based on scientific and local knowledge observations have documented elevated mercury concentrations in fish in the lower Athabasca. In the Peace-Athabasca Delta, a significant decline in muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) populations and mass die-off events have been documented by scientists, elders and trappers, linked to increased contamination and changes in hydrologic patterns in the Delta. Scientific or Indigenous Knowledge observations of changes in wetland cover or riparian forests in the sub-basin were not found.
The following table summarizes the availability of information for each Habitat and Species indicator.
Signs and Signals
Indigenous Knowledge Information and Data
Indigenous Knowledge Availability in Public Sources1
Science Information and Data
Science Data Availability2
Oral histories and local observations of fish abundance, timing and distribution, species diversity and fish health condition.
Many observations from several locations.
Fish (including salmon, suckers, pickerels, burbot) abundance, timing and distribution, species diversity and fish health condition.
Many data on fish population and health.
Oral histories and stories of wetland and forest (and other habitat / land use)
Some observations from few locations.
Number, location and total area of wetlands. Species diversity in wetlands where available.
Wetland mapping available from a variety of sources.
Local observations and oral histories of riparian forests
No information found.
Number, location, total area of riparian forests areas. Species diversity of riparian forests where available.
Limited information found.
1 Qualifiers for the availability of local and Indigenous Knowledge observations in publicly available sources: Limited = 1-2 observations; Some = 3-4 observations; Many = 5 or more observations
2 Qualifiers for the availability of science data in publicly available sources: Low = Individual studies or locations; Many = Network of monitoring stations across the basin
Declines in some fish populations and health condition have been observed by Indigenous communities and local residents in the Athabasca sub-basin.
Mass fish die-off events have been described by Indigenous communities and stewardship groups in some lakes in the lower Athabasca., An increase in the frequency of blue-green algae blooms has been noted in recent years by residents of Baptiste and Island Lakes, raising concerns for the impacts on fish populations.
Wetlands & Riparian Forests
Wetland cover in the Athabasca sub-basin is small, and information on changes over time in wetlands in the sub-basin is limited. Notably, the Peace-Athabasca Delta, a globally-significant wetland, has become drier in the past century and Indigenous communities have observed a significant decline in muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus) populations in the Delta.
Ecological and Cultural Significance of the Peace-Athabasca Delta
The Peace-Athabasca Delta (PAD) occurs at the confluence of the Peace and Athabasca Rivers on a land base of approximately 3900 km2 in northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories. The PAD consists of a dynamic ecosystem of rivers, lakes, channels, marshes and grasslands that support a diversity of fish and wildlife. Wetlands in the PAD support approximately 45 species of mammals, 214 species of birds, and 20 fish species. As one of the largest inland freshwater deltas in the world, the PAD is designated as a Ramsar site, or a Wetland of International Significance. Approximately 80% of the PAD lies within Wood Buffalo National Park, a designated World Heritage Site.
The Peace-Athabasca Delta is the ancestral homeland of the Cree, Chipewyan and Métis peoples and has sustained their traditional cultures and ways of life for generations. Waterways in the PAD provide a vast network of water transportation routes that enable traditional land users to access preferred harvesting areas, cabins, campsites, and other cultural use areas. Wildlife populations of fish, furbearers, mammals and waterfowl and many types of vegetation continue to provide for subsistence, material and cultural uses. Moose (Alces alces), muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), walleye (Sander vitreus), whitefish, and jackfish are a few of the many species of cultural significance to local Indigenous communities.
Before the rise of industrial development, ice jams in the springtime would cause the Peace and Athabasca rivers to overflow their banks and flood the Peace-Athabasca Delta, replenishing the landscape and perched basins with fresh water. Perched basins are high-elevation catchment areas that are solely replenished by overland flooding. When filled with water, perched basins in the Peace-Athabasca Delta provide quality wildlife habitat. Yet in the absence of ice jams and with lower water levels and changing flow patterns in the Delta, many of these perched basins are drying up. These changes diminish the quality of aquatic habitat and lead to displacement of wildlife populations (such as muskrat, beaver (Castor Candensis) and moose) from the region.
No documented sources of Indigenous Knowledge or scientific information related to changes in riparian forests
Documented sources of Indigenous Knowledge or scientific information regarding changes in riparian forests the Athabasca sub-basin were not found.
Change in Wetland Cover in the Athabasca Sub=basin 1990 to 2010 (Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada)
Land Cover Type
Area 1990 (km2)
Area 2010 (km2)
1990 % cover
2010 % cover
Health & Wellbeing