Final Report: Risks to Northern Alaskan Inupiat: Assessing Potential Effects of Oil Contamination on Subsistence Lifestyles, Health, and Nutrition

EPA Grant Number: R831045
Title: Risks to Northern Alaskan Inupiat: Assessing Potential Effects of Oil Contamination on Subsistence Lifestyles, Health, and Nutrition
Investigators: Wetzel, Dana L. , Hepa, Taqulik , O'Hara, Todd M. , Reynolds, John E. , Willetto, Carla
Institution: Mote Marine Laboratory
EPA Project Officer: Hahn, Intaek
Project Period: August 1, 2003 through July 1, 2006
Project Amount: $437,399
RFA: Lifestyle and Cultural Practices of Tribal Populations and Risks from Toxic Substances in the Environment (2002) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Environmental Justice , Global Climate Change , Tribal Environmental Health Research , Health , Safer Chemicals

Objective:

To accomplish our diverse, but closely linked objectives, we used a multi-year, multi-investigator approach that involves both this project and additional studies.  Our original project objectives were to:

  • Objective 1: conduct chemical analyses to develop baseline data regarding concentrations of petroleum hydrocarbons (specifically PAHs) in marine mammals consumed for subsistence. 
  • Objective 2: accompany Native hunters, both to acquire tissues for chemical analyses (above) and to be present during butchering of bowhead whales and bearded seals to record observations regarding “quality” of the tissues of harvested animals.  In this way, we will capture and record traditional knowledge (i.e., traditional “biomarkers”) regarding features such as odor, taste and appearance of tissues and organs that signal to subsistence hunters and field scientists that individual specimens are safe to consume or not.
  • Objective 3:  archive specimen materials for further study, including additional chemical analyses and developing routine chemical or histological biomarkers of exposure to or presence of petroleum hydrocarbons (or screening biomarkers) that could be performed at relatively low cost to provide another tool by which to help subsistence hunters and others to monitor consumed tissues and organs.
  • Objective 4:  assess the extent to which oil and gas development along the North Slope are likely in the upcoming years.
  • Objective 5: develop ties with Native leaders and other scientists to permit the results to be incorporated into a formal hazard assessment/risk assessment model and a multi-faceted public awareness and outreach program.

Summary/Accomplishments (Outputs/Outcomes):

Methods

Chemical analyses of tissues: 

PAH analyses:  Samples of tissues and other matrices (see Appendix 1, this report) were sub-sampled from animals in the field using fresh solvent-cleaned, stainless steel scalpels for each sample.  Each specimen was stored in a separate pre-cleaned glass jar with a Teflon lined lid and placed on ice for transport back to the laboratory.  Samples were then frozen (-20 degrees Fahrenheit or colder) until extraction occurred.  Extraction involved modified NOAA Status and Trends protocols (Lauenstein and Cantillo 1998).  An aliquot from each sample was removed for moisture content analysis. Approximately 10 g of each tissue or matrix was weighed out to the nearest 0.1 g and placed into a glass beaker with 50 g of solvent washed sodium sulfate and homogenized with a tissumizer for 2 minutes.  Appropriate polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) internal standards were then added along with 100 ml dichloromethane, sonicated for 3 minutes and decanted into 500 ml round bottom flask using a glass funnel with glass wool topped with sodium sulfate.  Extractions were repeated twice more with 75 ml dichloromethane each and decanted. The combined organic phases were evaporated to near dryness, and re-dissolved in 1 ml hexane.  The extracts were further purified by silica gel-alumina column chromatography.  Field blanks, laboratory blanks, matrix spikes and duplicates were included for each set of samples collected.

All extracts were analyzed by a Thermo Finnigan DSQ quadrapole gas chromatograph–mass spectrometer (GCMS) equipped with a 30 m DB-5 fused silica column for qualitative and quantitative identification of 50 individual PAH’s including parent compounds and homologs.  Oven temperature program was held at 50°C for two minutes and then programmed from 50°C to 280°C at 6°C min-1 and held at 280°C for 15 minutes with helium as the carrier gas.  The mass spectrometer scanned from mass 40-500 in 0.5 sec at an ionization potential of 70 eV.  All mass spectral data were compared to spectra produced by authentic standards and to previously published library spectra and by quantifying the base peak ion of each PAH against the base peak of the internal standard.  The laboratory minimum detectable amounts have been calculated at 100 ng/g of extracted tissue samples.  Laboratory analytical precision has been previously determined in our laboratory by making replicate injections of PAH standards to ascertain reproducibility.  Standard deviations for the standards used indicated a maximum laboratory error of ± 11%, and an average standard deviation of ± 3%.

Biomarker analyses: Samples were also collected in the field (see Appendix 1) to permit the use of a combination of methods designed to help assess both the exposures and health effects of seals and whales to petroleum hydrocarbons.  A range of tissues (e.g., liver, kidney, pancreas, gonad, spleen) was collected and sent to collaborator Craig Downs (Haereticus Environmental Laboratory) biomarker assays to be run.  These tissue samples were sent in two conditions: frozen (sent in a dry shipper) and preserved in 10% neutral buffered formalin.

Downs processed samples using the Cellular Diagnostic System (CDS), which he developed to diagnose physiological condition, monitor stress responses, identify putative stressors, and forecast outcomes of individuals and populations faced with adverse environmental conditions (Downs et al., 2000; 2001a; 2001b, 2002a, 2002b).  The assays conducted specifically for this study included porphyrins, ferrochelatase, protoporphyrin oxidase IX, heme oxygenase, Cu/Zn superoxide dismutase, heat shock proteins 60 and 70 and small heat shock protein, ubiquitin, and multidrug resistance protein (MDR).

Capture and record traditional knowledge:  

Our goal for this component of the proposal was to record traditional observations regarding factors that indicate whether a particular harvested animal is acceptable or not.  By “traditional” we mean both the general observations of the involved Inupiat people and of field scientists who routinely accompany hunters into the field.  We approached this topic by using a formal questionnaire (Appendix 2 of this report) and by numerous informal discussions with hunters. 

Archival of specimen materials:

PIs Wetzel and Reynolds became sufficiently involved and trusted by the NSB scientists that they were sometimes asked to be responsible for collection of tissue samples from harvested bowhead whales or bearded seals for the Alaska Marine Mammal Tissue Archival Project (AMMTAP), a multi-collaborator effort to ensure that tissue specimens from a wide range of marine mammals are properly collected and archived to permit biomonitoring and retrospective analyses.  Information regarding AMMTAP is available at the following website:  www.absc.usgs.gov/research/ammtap/index.htm.

Future Oil and Gas Development:

The Department of Wildlife Management of the North Slope Borough (NSB-DWM) is heavily involved with oil and gas companies, the U.S. Minerals Management Service, and environmental organizations with regard to proposed oil and gas development offshore of northern Alaska.  Among other things, the NSB-DWM is concerned about conservation of wildlife and subsistence uses of natural resources.   A key staff member involved in those discussions on behalf of the Borough (Robert Suydam) provided an overview of future development activities and concerns.

Develop Ties with Native Leaders and Communities:

Three PIs for the project had established ties already: Hepa is an Alaska Native who lives in Barrow, AK.  She is, in fact, an acknowledged community leader.   O’Hara and Willetto lived and worked in Barrow for nearly a decade before moving to Fairbanks in 2004; their long residency and close interactions with people on the North Slope ensured that they have close and lasting ties.  Wetzel and Reynolds worked to develop ties simply by making multiple trips to the North Slope, staying in Barrow, Wainwright, and Kaktovik for as much as two weeks/trip, and being visible in the community by attending public functions.  Their efforts have led to their being recognized by people on the North Slope; for example, it is not unusual for Wetzel/Reynolds to be asked to join people for a cup of coffee and a conversation, or stopped in a store or at a harvested whale and greeted with “Welcome Back.”   Reynolds was given an Eskimo name during the course of the study:  “Emuqtannee” meaning swimming walrus.

An important goal of developing such ties is to establish credibility and trust with the communities for which subsistence resources are potentially threatened by chemical contamination.  In that regard, Wetzel/Reynolds gave numerous public presentations, met with school children, provided radio interviews, and met in small groups with Native leaders to present the results of the study.   Presentations of the data were typically preceded by discussions with co-PI Hepa and the staff of the NSB-DWM to ensure that scientific information was provided in a culturally relevant and sensitive manner.

Conclusions:

Results

General Logistics and Sampling:

Prior to and during the contract period, the PIs made several trips to the North Slope to work with Native hunters and local scientists.   Trips occurred as follows:

May 2003: spring bowhead whale hunt, Barrow; 1 whale sampled
July 2003: bearded seal hunt, Barrow and Wainwright; 5 bearded seals, 1 spotted seal, and 1 walrus sampled (Barrow); 0 seals sampled (Wainwright)
Oct.2003: fall bowhead hunt, Barrow; 5 whales sampled
May 2004: spring bowhead hunt, Barrow; 1 whale sampled
July 2004: bearded seal hunt, Barrow and Kaktovik; 2 bearded seals sampled (Kaktovik)
Oct. 2004: fall bowhead hunt, Barrow; 0 whales sampled
May 2005: spring bowhead hunt, Barrow; 2 whales sampled
Sept. 2005: fall bowhead hunt, Barrow; 2 whales sampled
Oct. 2006: fall bowhead hunt, Barrow, 5 whales sampled
May 2007: spring bowhead hunt, Barrow; 3 whales sampled
Oct. 2007: fall bowhead hunt, Barrow; 0 whales sampled

In collaboration with staff of the North Slope Borough, Department of Wildlife Management (NSB-DWM), we compiled a list of desired tissues and described sampling protocols for pinnipeds and whales.  They are included in Appendix 1.    In addition, the PIs facilitated scientific research by other scientists by collecting requested samples in the field.

The regular participation by the PIs has led to their being recognized and better accepted by the local people, including hunters and other Native leaders.  The PIs are now invited to the homes of whaling captains for celebrations that occur following the harvest of whales; the PIs participated in July 4th celebrations.  In addition, scientists and administrators with the NSB-DWM have become familiar and comfortable with the PIs and their work.  Not all trips led to acquisition of samples for analysis; for example, weather conditions prevented any harvest of whales during the October 2004 trip.   However, the regular and extended presence of the PIs has allowed them to get to know and to interact well with local people in Barrow, and to a lesser extent in Wainwright and Kaktovik, where visits were less frequent. As such, the goals of Objective 5 and Objective 2 are being satisfied.

Specimens:

PAH analyses:

The samples collected from harvested whales and pinnipeds for PAH analyses include epidermis, gut contents, feces, kidney, outer blubber, inner blubber, epaxial muscle, lung, and liver; for pinnipeds we also collected bile, and for whales we collected baleen (Appendix 1).  The study acquired fresh specimen materials for PAH analysis from twenty-six bowhead whales (n = 178 separate tissues) and nine pinnipeds (seven bearded seals, one spotted seal, and one walrus; n = 83 separate tissues analyzed).  Note that some specimens were acquired outside of the contract period and some were acquired by staff of the NSB-DWM and sent to Mote Marine Laboratory for analysis.  A summary of the fresh tissues analyzed for PAHs appears in Table 1.           

In addition to conducting analyses of PAH levels in fresh-frozen matrices from the animals listed above, we also worked with staff of the North Slope Borough, Department of Wildlife Management, and local Natives to acquire bowhead whale meat that had been stored and/or cooked.   The goal was to determine whether PAH levels in the fresh samples were the same as those in processed or stored ones; stated otherwise, we wondered whether handling of the meat of blubber might affect PAH content of the food in some way.   A summary of the thirteen samples (from three different whales) involved appears in Table 2.

Biomarker assays:

The majority of the individual animals sampled for PAHs (Table 1) were also sampled for biomarkers.  The tissue types most generally acquired included liver, kidney, pancreas, gonad, heart, and lung.  Other tissues acquired opportunistically included brain and thyroid (Appendix 1).

Chemical analyses: 

PAH analyses:

The analyses assessed the amounts of 50 individual PAH’s including parent compounds and homologs.   No compounds were present in detectable amounts (i.e., greater than 100 ng/g of extracted tissue samples) in any of the fresh samples examined.  The analyses to assess PAHs in stored and/or prepared muscle or blubber also produced no detectable levels of any compounds

Biomarker assays:

The results of biomarker assays conducted by Craig Downs appear in Table 3.  Of the numerous assays conducted, the only one that produced results suggestive to Downs of exposures and effects of contaminants was porphyrins.  Elevated porphyrins values indicate exposure of an individual to organic contaminants, possibly but not necessarily including PAHs (the only contaminant class for which analyses were done in this study).

Table 1:  Marine mammals from which specimen materials have been analyzed for PAHs.  All listed animals were harvested for subsistence use in Barrow, Alaska.  The designation “All” indicates that the full range of matrices was analyzed for a particular whale or pinniped (see text and Appendix 1).  In cases in which some matrices were not analyzed, those are indicated.   An asterisk designates whales taken during the fall hunt; whales taken during the spring hunt are not specially noted.   Pinnipeds were harvested in July; for some, butchering had progressed to the point where total length was unavailable (N/A). 

Field Number Species Tissues Total Length (cm)/Gender
BS 02 03 Erignathus barbatus All 118/Female
BS 03 03 Erignathus barbatus All 227/Female
BS 04 03 Erignathus barbatus No bile N/A/Female
BS 05 03 Erignathus barbatus All 163/Female
BS 06/03 Erignathus barbatus All 169/Female
BS 01/04 Erignathus barbatus No bile N/A
BS 02/04 Erignathus barbatus No feces/bile N/A
SS 01-03 Phoca largha No epidermis 118/Female
W 01-03 Odobenus rosmarus All N/A/Male
02 B1 Balaena mysticetus All 1170/Female
02 B2 Balaena mysticetus No baleen/gut cont.1670/Female
02 B3 Balaena mysticetus No baleen approx. 2000/Female1
02 B4* Balaena mysticetus No baleen 861/Female
02 B5* Balaena mysticetus No baleen 850/Female
03 B2 Balaena mysticetus All 1380/Male
03 B3 Balaena mysticetus All 899/Female
03 B4 Balaena mysticetus No gut conts 1336/Male
03 B5 Balaena mysticetus All 767/Male
03 B6 Balaena mysticetus All 1389/Female
03 B7 Balaena mysticetus All 1275/Male
03 B8 Balaena mysticetus All 1490/Male
03 B9 Balaena mysticetus No baleen/gut conts1640/Female
03 B11* Balaena mysticetus All 870/Female
03 B12* Balaena mysticetus All 1120/Female
03 B13* Balaena mysticetus No baleen/gut conts/feces/kidney/lung/liver 1190/Female
03 B15* Balaena mysticetus All 1250/Female
04 B1 Balaena mysticetus All 1230/Male
05 B1 Balaena mysticetus Only liver 740/Male
05 B2 Balaena mysticetus Only muscle/liver800/Female
06 B1 Balaena mysticetus All 920/Male
06 B20* Balaena mysticetus Only baleen/inner blubber/liver 960/Male
06 B21* Balaena mysticetus All 1280/Male

1Whale 02B3 was estimated to be at least 60 feet long.  It was not pulled intact out of the water; rather it was measured and cut into sections in the water.

Table 2:  Prepared or stored samples of bowhead whales analyzed for PAH residues.

Specimen Tissue type Method of storage or processing
04 B3 Muscle Stored in meat cellar 5 months; wrapped in foil; uncooked
04B11 Muscle Stored in meat cellar 5 months; wrapped in foil; uncooked
>04B14 Muscle Fresh-uncooked
Muscle Smoked
Muscle Stored in meat cellar; uncooked
Heart Cooked--boiled
“other organ meat” Cooked-boiled
Maktak* Cooked-boiled

* Maktak is the outer layer of blubber with the epidermis attached.


Specimen number;species Tissue type Porphyrin
ng/mg TSP
Ferrochelatase
pmol/ng TSP
Protoporphyrinogen
oxidase IX pmol/ng TSP
Heme Oxygenase
pmol/ng TSP
Cu/ZnSOD
pmol/ng TSP
Hsp60
pmol/ng TSP
Hsp70
pmol/ng TSP
Ubiquitin
nmol/ng TSP
MDR
pmol/ng TSP
sHsp
nmol/ng TSP
W-01-03; walrus Kidney 19.1 15.37 175.83 23.18 3.33 52.62 114.24 1.6 49.32 BSC
BS-03-03; bearded seal Lung 11.0 9.74 88.14 25.95 6.21 16.23 97.55 2.2 14.83 BSC
BS-03-03 ; bearded seal kidney 17.1 21.88 204.73 31.88 3.99 49.22 139.4 1.6 69.39 BSC
W-01-03; walrus Liver 57.2 315.29 44.3 160.33 17.88 101.15 247 5.9 319.08 1.53
BS-03-03; bearded seal Thyroid 42.1 252.02 55.09 188.05 24.88 41.05 385.04 6 116.34 BSC
BS-02-03; bearded seal Liver 13.0 34.18 132.94 41.73 3.53 42.94 224.73 1.4 244 BSC
BS-02-03; bearded seal Pancreas 10.9659666666667 BSC 22.18 222.53 38.3 1.16 21.7 164.74 2 19.05 BSC
BS-03-03; bearded seal Kidney 4.9479 BSC 47.31 315.38 37.11 2.24 49 226.64 1.7 52.99 BSC
BS-02-03; bearded seal Neocortex 21.2 138.02 232.15 29.2 2.44 36.26 17.83 1.1 BSC;  0.42 BSC
BS-05-03; bearded seal Thyroid 21.2 51.77 216.41 16.49 4.08 23.73 63.43 2.1 13.11 BSC
BS-03-03; bearded seal Ovary 10.9659666666667 BSC 49.51 303.66 38.01 0.09 61.06 21.8 0.2 9.4 BSC
SS-01-03; spotted seal Kidney 0.966699999999999 BSC 7.42 313.7 25.7 5.9 29.88 63.43 2.1 17.63 BSC
SS-01-03; spotted seal Lung 35.7 277.27 65.09 116.04 7.08 68.01 53.18 3.8 22.14 BSC
SS-01-03; spotted seal Heart 21.2 120.41 262.33 30.24 4.18 35.14 83.34 1.9 30.51 BSC
03 B15; bowhead whale Kidney 10.9659666666667 BSC 16.44 259.65 35.17 3.52 40.55 34.02 1 38.2 2.5
BS-04-03; bearded seal Lung 10.9274 BSC 11.58 261.77 39.86 4.03 35 84.08 1.2 12.3 BSC
BS-03-03; bearded seal Lung 4.69175 BSC 3.11 204.73 30.95 5.03 47.82 57.2 1.5 29.61 BSC
BS-04-03; bearded seal Kidney 8.84885 BSC 29.96 315.26 47.97 4.35 22.61 39.29 2.8 53.92 BSC
BS-04-03;bearded seal Epidermis 10.9274 BSC 8.15 303.67 37.37 5.58 51.06 6.2; BSC 0.9 33 BSC
04 B3; bowhead whale Heart 2.63496666666667 BSC 11.79 272.18 20.39 4.09 41.22 195.36 2.2 59.39 6.31
04 B3; bowhead whale Kidney 6.7703 BSC 16.04 337.23 22.53 3.18 25 294.52 1.6 41.77 BSC
04 B3; bowhead whale Epidermis (-5.54863333333333) BSC 26.16 199.74 37.01 2.64 33.61 40.42 1 5.3 1.52
04 B3; bowhead whale Pancreas 21.5 192.74 281.66 50.88 1.9 34.09 39.41 1.9 36.72 BSC
o4 B3; bowhead whale Liver 76.9 316.43 54 189.74 11.5 144.93 330.06 3.3 235.16 2.95
04 B3; bowhead whale Lung 4.69175 BSC 36.83 287.08 29.12 4.3 41 25.55 2 15.32 BSC
04 B3; bowhead whale Ovary 6.7703 BSC 20.52 115.93 30 2.55 70.14 4.69; BSC 0.3 2.6 2.03
03 B10 bowhead whale Pancreas 13.0 36.7 349.27 41.72 3.22 30.09 73 1.7 17.06 BSC
03 B11; bowhead whale Ovary 0.578183333333333 BSC 42.9 117.4 38.05 1.72 82.58 0.94; BSC 0.4 1.1 1.14
03 B11; bowhead whale Kidney 6.79206666666667 BSC 30.17 303.65 58.09 5.33 38.11 43.62 1.8 49.03 BSC
BS-03-03; bearded seal Pancreas 19.4 45.5 345.9 21.28 3.7 28.6 96.44 1.7 36.08 BSC
BS-05-03; bearded seal Liver 34.4 141.63 90.42 110.41 16.04 104.73 403.49 2.9 99.25 2.81
BS-05-03; bearded seal Pancreas 25.8 52.05 342.25 47.28 4.9 19.44 20 1.5 25.39 BSC
SS-01-03; spotted seal Pancreas 13.0 28.73 307.38 33 3.5 20.02 45.2 1.2 39.32 BSC
BS-03-03; bearded seal Liver 105.1 315.43 44 142.67 11.6 66.98 392.22 4.2 101.17 4.62
BS-04-03; bearded seal Liver 70.0 144.58 60.35 165.62 9.3 100.55 170.32 3.5 90.17 1.55
03 B11; bowhead whale Liver 117.5 350.45 41.54 162.77 22.57 91.7 258.39 4.8 207.19 4.8
BS-04-03; bearded seal Pancreas 8.84885 BSC 14 270.89 19.25 3.05 40.51 29.39 1.3 40.18 BSC

Capture and record traditional knowledge:  

With assistance of staff of the NSB-DWM (especially Harry Brower, Cyd Hanns and Dr. Todd O’Hara), we developed a survey instrument (Appendix 2) designed to assess the knowledge and attitudes of the Inupiat regarding health of the marine mammals they harvest, as well as environmental health in general.  The survey was administered to approximately one dozen hunters of varying ages (from elders to young people in their 20s).   Based on local experiences with other survey instruments, respondents expected to be paid for their responses; in addition, during times when the PIs were present to collect samples, active hunters did not wish to be interrupted for administration of a survey.  The PIs finally hired two local, Alaska Natives to administer the surveys at convenient times and places (and paid those individuals for administering surveys) but this also produced few results.

As noted in our methods, we also spent a great deal of time talking informally with hunters, elders and scientists. These conversations tended to reinforce the results of the few formal surveys we conducted.

Based on the relatively small sample size, we feel it is appropriate to assess general trends, but not to try to quantify the results.  Observed trends in responses include:

  • Dramatic observed changes were described in sea ice.  For example, interviewees discussed changes in the timing with which ice forms, as well as the safety and stability of the ice as hunters seek seals.
  • Most harvested marine mammals appear healthy.  A few are injured or have some attributes that make them unappealing once they are harvested.   In some cases (e.g., a bearded seal harvested in Barrow in summer, 2004) the harvested animal was discarded when the abdominal cavity was found to be filled with what was suspected to be cancer (C. Brower, pers. comm.).   We are not aware if the neoplasia has been confirmed by pathologists.
  • The most common avoidance occurred with rutting male bearded seals, which smell like gasoline and are inedible.
  • Besides the odor associated with rutting bearded seals, the sorts of cues reported most often as signs to avoid eating a harvested seal involved the appearance of the fat (yellowish and/or with suspected parasites).
  • Great concern exists about OCS oil and gas activity and the pollution and disturbance that might occur.
  • Seals and whales generally appear plentiful, although sea ice changes may make them unavailable to hunt.  For example, as noted above, if sea ice where seals occur lies many miles offshore (as it did, for example, in summer 2003), traversing a broad expanse of the ocean in a small boat may be unsafe for a hunter.  In the transition from dog-teams to snow machines, some people noted that there is a reduced need to hunt the seals, relative to historical times.
  • Hunters are observing some changes in animal distribution patterns that they associate with changes in sea ice conditions.  For example, there appear to be more gray whales using the coastal waters of the North Slope; as noted, in summer, seals may be distributed far offshore, along the edge of the ice.
  • Younger people tend to eat more non-traditional foods than their elders do.   However, it appears that this may vary a lot depending on village or even family within a village.    Different people prefer to eat different species of seal, although everyone avoids eating rutting male bearded seals.

Archival of specimen materials:

Appendix 1 describes the range of matrices we attempted to collect for PAH analyses and biomarker assays.   Those samples are archived at Mote Marine Laboratory (for PAH analyses) and at Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, Amherst, Virginia (for biomarker studies). At Mote Marine Laboratory, we also have archived a number of whale eyes for age determination studies (see “Unanticipated projects…” below).

Future Oil and Gas Development:

Robert Suydam is a Wildlife Biologist who has worked nearly two decades for the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management (the entity directed by co-PI, Taqulik Hepa).   Mr. Suydam provided the following summary for use by this project:

The North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management is concerned about increasing oil and gas activities in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas of northern Alaska.  Until recently, there were few activities in the offshore areas.  In the Beaufort Sea, BP developed Northstar production island in the early 2000s and there were several exploratory wells drilled in the Beaufort in the past 10 years.  In the Chukchi Sea, the last substantial activity occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s when five exploratory wells were drilled.  That situation changed in 2006 when the price of oil rose dramatically.  In 2006, Shell, ConocoPhillips, and GX Technology conducted deep seismic programs in northern Alaska and plans were developed for lease sales.  There is every indication that the dramatic increase in activity will likely continue well into the future.

The U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) held a Chukchi Sea lease sale (Sale 193) in early February 2008.  Sale 193 resulted in the largest total of high bids, $2.66 billion, of any sale ever held in Alaska.  Seven companies leased a total of 488 tracts.  Shell purchased the most tracts, spending $2.1 billion, followed by ConocoPhillips who spent approximately $500 million.  There is also considerable interest in the Beaufort Sea.  Numerous tracts have been leased by MMS from the Canadian border to Smith Bay in the western Beaufort Sea.  Additionally, the State of Alaska has leased many tracts in the nearshore state waters.

Exploration and development plans for the summer of 2008 are substantial.  For the Beaufort Sea, the plans include:

  • BP—continued production of oil at Northstar Island and monitoring of impacts to bowhead whales.
  • BP—3-D seismic exploration in support of development of the Liberty prospect.
  • Shell—3-D seismic in Camden and Harrison bays
  • Shell—exploratory drilling at the Sivulliq prospect in Camden Bay
  • Shell—shallow hazards and site clearance work in Camden Bay
  • Pioneer—development of the Oooguruk production island just offshore of the Colville River Delta
  • Eni—development of the Nikaitchuq production island just north of Oliktok Point
  • PGS—3-D seismic in support of the Eni’s Nikaitchuq development

For the Chukchi Sea, the plans include:

  • Shell—3-D seismic associated with the leases purchased in Sale 193.
  • ASRC Arctic Energy Services—shallow hazards and site clearance work for leases purchased in Sale 193.

In addition to these direct exploratory and development plans, there will be a considerable amount of barging and support vessels related to onshore and offshore development and supplying North Slope villages in 2008.  There are also several scientific expeditions occurring in 2008, including a seismic expedition in the deep waters of the northern Beaufort Sea. 

It is not yet clear what will occur in 2009.  The high cost of oil, results of Sale 193, and increased numbers of activities in 2008, all suggest that there will be high interest in conducting additional exploration and development.

The dramatic increase in oil and gas activity exacerbates local concerns for several reasons.  (1) Oil companies have a limited capability of cleaning up oil spilled in waters with ice.  The technologies are developing but there are still considerable shortcomings.  One shortcoming is the remote locations and the limited resources immediately available for cleaning up a large oil spill in the marine environment. (2) Arctic marine mammals are sensitive to sound and will be deflected from their typical movements by anthropogenic sounds.  Increase in oil and gas activities will result in additional human sounds, including loud seismic sounds, being introduced into the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. (3) Climate change has dramatically changed the sea ice cover in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.  There is a limited understanding of how these changes have impacted marine mammals or other species important for subsistence of people in northern Alaska.  For example, the last aerial surveys for marine mammals occurred in the offshore region of the Chukchi Sea in the early 1990s.  In the intervening 15 to 20 years, the ice cover has changed tremendously.  The ice breaks up earlier in the spring and forms later in the fall or even early winter.  There are indications that the marine mammal community has changed.  In recent years humpback and fin whales have been observed in the northern Chukchi and even into the western Beaufort.  In order to mitigate impacts from oil and gas, information is needed about even the basics, such as marine mammal distribution, movements, habitat use and abundance.  Until these types of information are available, it will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to mitigate impacts from oil and gas activities on marine mammals or the people who depend upon marine mammals for subsistence. (4) Reduction in sea ice will likely result in international shipping through Arctic waters increasing the possibility of an oil spill from a disabled or grounded ship and increased cumulative anthropogenic impacts.

The concerns described above by the NSB-DWM reinforce and parallel those expressed in surveys and informal discussions with hunters during this study.

Unanticipated projects of use to subsistence communities or science/management resulting from the study:

Because of the close relationships and confidence that developed among the groups involved with bowhead research and the project PIs, three ancillary studies emerged as a result of the EPA-funded project. 

One had to do with analyses of omega-3 fatty acids in bowhead whale blubber and implications for health of subsistence communities (Reynolds, Wetzel and O’Hara 2006).  The abstract of that publication follows:

Concerns exist regarding health and nutrition of subsistence-based communities in Alaska.   An apparent increase among Alaska Natives in diabetes, heart disease obesity and other disease conditions has occurred concurrently with dietary changes from a traditional to a more “Western” diet.   In northern Alaska, consumption of bowhead whale meat, maktak (a combination of epidermis and blubber), and other products has provided an important component of Native diets.  Objective: This study assessed the fatty acid constituents of bowhead whale blubber to assess possible health benefits.  Study Design:  Working with hunters in Barrow, Alaska, we acquired samples of blubber from several body locations and blubber depths for chemical analysis.   Methods:  We used gas chromatography-mass spectrometry of fatty acid picolinyl esters to confirm the fatty acid composition of samples. Results:  Analyses documented that bowhead blubber contains relatively high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Conclusions: Omega 3 fatty acids have been suggested or shown to be important in treatment and/or prevention of many diseases including elevated blood pressure and cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, depression, and some cancers.  Beyond the cultural and other benefits associated with the subsistence hunt of bowhead whales, consumption of bowhead whale blubber provides some important health and nutritional benefits.

The second ancillary study involves efforts to determine the age of individual bowhead whales in order to facilitate the development of accurate life history models for the species.  A summary of the work to date and its implications follows (from Wetzel et al. 2007):

Biologists and managers continue to search for methods by which age of individual mysticetes can be accurately and precisely determined.   Efforts to date to determine the age of bowhead whales using amino acid racemization (AAR) have indicated that individuals may reach ages exceeding 100 years and have enhanced understanding of life history parameters for the species.   However, utility of existing age estimates is hampered by their lack of precision and, in some cases, accuracy (e.g., some young individuals have been assigned negative ages).   Using lens nuclei from bowhead whale eyes acquired during subsistence hunts by Alaska Natives, we revisited AAR approaches and have conducted experiments designed to test assumptions about important variables including: (a) optimal temperatures and times of hydrolysis of lens nuclei; (b) amino acid extract concentrations that elicit optimal resolution of d/l ratios of chromatographs; and (c) the relationship between age and racemization rate (Kasp; generally assumed to be constant).   Based on our experiments and subsequent revisions to analytical techniques, we conducted blind assessments of d/l ratios for 17 whales; three replicates were done/individual.   Our results produced age estimates that were generally compatible with those of previous studies, but it appears that ages based that ages based on our analyses may increase individual age estimates slightly.  Our standard errors were between 2.5 and 10.6 years, much smaller than those for other studies.    The “negative ages” of some young whales in previous studies occurred for only one individual (a fetus) in our assessments.     Experiments to determine the extent to which Kasp varies with age are not completed.   With that component finished, we will be able to provide more precise and accurate information for bowhead whale life history and population models.

The third ancillary study involves analyses of sediments and fish in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) for PAHs.   The results of that study appear in Reynolds et al. (2005).     The abstract follows:

Subsistence communities are concerned about contaminant levels in the food they consume, and along the North Slope of Alaska, one contaminant type about which subsistence users are particularly worried is the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) associated with oil and gas production and pollution.  Our studies involve two distinct projects:  First, sediments and fish from two of the largest systems in the region, Teshekpuk Lake and the Colville River are being assessed for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) concentrations.  Preliminary data suggest that sediments from the Teshekpuk Lake area have PAH levels equal to some levels found in the contaminated canal systems of Venice, Italy.   In addition, we worked closely with Native hunters and scientists with the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management to acquire ten matrices from each of 14 bowhead whales and 7 pinnipeds killed for subsistence use.   For the marine mammal matrices analyzed to date for PAHs, we have found no detectable levels of oil-related contaminants.  Our work to date suggests that PAH contamination is high in some coastal sediments.  Although PAHs are not currently problematic for bowhead whales, bearded seals and the Alaska Natives who consume them, there may be some immediate or long-term effects on other species (e.g., freshwater fish) from these coastal areas that are also used for subsistence foods.   The sorts of baselines we are creating are especially important to concerned subsistence communities who are trying to make informed decisions about their diets.   The baselines are also vital in order to assess future changes associated with oil and gas development in coastal regions or offshore of Alaska’s North Slope.  When our analyses are complete, we will work with local educators and leaders to communicate our results to the involved communities, as well as to scientists and decision makers.

Our study resulted in some interesting and useful results that have implications for health and nutrition of polar marine mammals, the Inupiat population of northern Alaska, and decision-makers.   First, our analyses demonstrated that there are no detectable levels of PAHs in the tissues and matrices of two marine mammals that exist at different trophic levels and that are extremely important for subsistence-based communities on Alaska’s North Slope: the bowhead whale and the bearded seal.  In fact, whales harvested in Barrow in the fall have recently traveled through waters where oil and gas development occur (i.e., Prudhoe Bay), and even these animals did not have detectable levels of PAHs in any tissues or matrices examined.  Thus, from the standpoint of the marine mammals living along the coast of Alaska’s North Slope, body burdens of PAHs do not appear to compromise their health.  It is especially important, we note, to establish baselines of this type now, given the ever-present threat of oil spills in Alaskan waters.  Imagine how helpful it would have been to have had adequate baselines regarding PAHs prior to the Exxon Valdez and the Selendang spills in Prince William Sound and the Aleutian Islands, respectively.

Two additional observations are relevant:  First, the seals that were harvested and from which tissues were analyzed currently lack age estimates, but their body lengths suggest that most were young animals.  If, for example, older seals are distributed such that they are exposed to more PAHs than young seals, the results of the analyses might be different if older seals were assessed (or seals were sampled at different times of year).  

Second, lack of detectable tissue levels of PAHs does not necessarily mean that the animals have not been exposed to PAHs and responded physiologically.  Elevated porphyrins levels suggest that animals have been exposed to anthropogenic contaminants (Casini et al. 2002), although PAHs are not necessarily implicated.  The fact that an individual might still show signs of cellular or genetic response or even impairment from exposure, without necessarily exhibiting body burdens of a contaminant, is why focused biomarker assays should accompany assessments of tissue-specific concentrations of contaminants.   As a corollary, we note that monitoring tissue residues is important, but simply relying on such monitoring could miss potential responses and/or impacts if additional biomarker assays are not done.

The marine mammals we sampled are especially important for subsistence users.  It is clear at this time that PAH contamination is not a threat to people who consume bearded seal and bowhead whale; both fresh samples and samples that have been stored in cellars or prepared in traditional ways did not have detectable levels of PAHs.  Inasmuch as some subsistence communities have started to turn away from traditional, subsistence foods from fear of contamination (e.g., Verbrugge and Middaugh 2004) our results provide additional reason to support the position of the Alaska Division of Public Health that “encourages the continued consumption of traditional foods.”

As we have gotten to know hunters and other Alaska Natives better, we have started to record traditional knowledge regarding quality of meat and other consumable tissues obtained from subsistence hunting.     Our results date suggest that occasional seals, in particular, may manifest traits that discourage hunters from eating them; some of these traits have potential corollary endpoints with oil or fuel contamination suggesting that the hunters and other consumers may be “sensitized” to discriminate edible and inedible seals and whales.  However, most hunters viewed marine mammals as being generally healthy, even though they remain vigilant in their monitoring of body condition.  Of greater immediate concern to the few people surveyed to date were (a) changes in sea ice that may result in reduced availability of seals and/or unsafe conditions and (b) potential future problems associated with oil and gas development.  Coupled with our long-term plans to develop multiple, low-cost biomarkers of exposure, this information will assist the Inupiat to assess when meat, blubber and other products may be unsafe or unpalatable.    Discussions prior to a potentially catastrophic petroleum release will better prepare wildlife biologists and wildlife-consuming residents to make appropriate decisions.  

The results of our surveys of human attitudes with regard to oil and gas-related contamination did not provide unusual, novel insights.   For example, Wernham (2007) reinforced the concern among Alaska Natives of the North Slope with regard to effects of oil and gas development of human health and culture.  Among other things, Wernham’s analyses suggested that such development could have negative impacts including increased prevalence of: a) diabetes and related metabolic conditions, b) substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide, c) serious injuries, and d) exposure to harmful chemicals.  Potential benefits of oil and gas development were primarily financial, leading among other things to increased infrastructure and funding for health care.    Wernham concluded by urging that public health issues be included explicitly in Environmental Impact Statements.

The potential benefits of our preliminary work are clear. Providing scientific information to communities that will promote public confidence to continue consumption of healthy traditional foods for which nutritional value is documented (marine and coastal fish and mammals) is critical. In addition, subsistence communities sometimes view with suspicion alarming media reports about contaminants and food safety, and the process our project employs may increase such communities’ confidence in science and the scientific method to help them address food safety and palatability questions that may arise.  Socioeconomic conditions (remote, expensive and limited selections of alternative food, etc.) do not allow for many nutritious and affordable choices. These alternatives are also considered major causes of the current “outbreaks” of diseases such as obesity and diabetes in rural Native communities (Verbrugge and Middaugh 2004).

The traditional world of the Inupiat continues to be under considerable pressure. As industrial activities may expand to seek and acquire rich oil and gas resources, there is significantly increased potential risk of exposure to anthropogenic petroleum hydrocarbon pollution for the Inupiat themselves, for their traditional foods, and for the environment on which they all depend. Although all possible damage may not be mitigated, appropriate scientific assessments of contamination levels and risk, coupled with an aggressive outreach program, can empower and allow the Inupiat to make informed lifestyle choices.    

Discussion

Our study resulted in some interesting and useful results that have implications for health and nutrition of polar marine mammals, the Inupiat population of northern Alaska, and decision-makers.   First, our analyses demonstrated that there are no detectable levels of PAHs in the tissues and matrices of two marine mammals that exist at different trophic levels and that are extremely important for subsistence-based communities on Alaska’s North Slope: the bowhead whale and the bearded seal.  In fact, whales harvested in Barrow in the fall have recently traveled through waters where oil and gas development occur (i.e., Prudhoe Bay), and even these animals did not have detectable levels of PAHs in any tissues or matrices examined.  Thus, from the standpoint of the marine mammals living along the coast of Alaska’s North Slope, body burdens of PAHs do not appear to compromise their health.  It is especially important, we note, to establish baselines of this type now, given the ever-present threat of oil spills in Alaskan waters.  Imagine how helpful it would have been to have had adequate baselines regarding PAHs prior to the Exxon Valdez and the Selendang spills in Prince William Sound and the Aleutian Islands, respectively.

Two additional observations are relevant:  First, the seals that were harvested and from which tissues were analyzed currently lack age estimates, but their body lengths suggest that most were young animals.  If, for example, older seals are distributed such that they are exposed to more PAHs than young seals, the results of the analyses might be different if older seals were assessed (or seals were sampled at different times of year).

Second, lack of detectable tissue levels of PAHs does not necessarily mean that the animals have not been exposed to PAHs and responded physiologically.  Elevated porphyrins levels suggest that animals have been exposed to anthropogenic contaminants (Casini et al. 2002), although PAHs are not necessarily implicated.  The fact that an individual might still show signs of cellular or genetic response or even impairment from exposure, without necessarily exhibiting body burdens of a contaminant, is why focused biomarker assays should accompany assessments of tissue-specific concentrations of contaminants.   As a corollary, we note that monitoring tissue residues is important, but simply relying on such monitoring could miss potential responses and/or impacts if additional biomarker assays are not done.

The marine mammals we sampled are especially important for subsistence users.  It is clear at this time that PAH contamination is not a threat to people who consume bearded seal and bowhead whale; both fresh samples and samples that have been stored in cellars or prepared in traditional ways did not have detectable levels of PAHs.  Inasmuch as some subsistence communities have started to turn away from traditional, subsistence foods from fear of contamination (e.g., Verbrugge and Middaugh 2004) our results provide additional reason to support the position of the Alaska Division of Public Health that “encourages the continued consumption of traditional foods.”

As we have gotten to know hunters and other Alaska Natives better, we have started to record traditional knowledge regarding quality of meat and other consumable tissues obtained from subsistence hunting.     Our results date suggest that occasional seals, in particular, may manifest traits that discourage hunters from eating them; some of these traits have potential corollary endpoints with oil or fuel contamination suggesting that the hunters and other consumers may be “sensitized” to discriminate edible and inedible seals and whales.  However, most hunters viewed marine mammals as being generally healthy, even though they remain vigilant in their monitoring of body condition.  Of greater immediate concern to the few people surveyed to date were (a) changes in sea ice that may result in reduced availability of seals and/or unsafe conditions and (b) potential future problems associated with oil and gas development.  Coupled with our long-term plans to develop multiple, low-cost biomarkers of exposure, this information will assist the Inupiat to assess when meat, blubber and other products may be unsafe or unpalatable.    Discussions prior to a potentially catastrophic petroleum release will better prepare wildlife biologists and wildlife-consuming residents to make appropriate decisions.

The results of our surveys of human attitudes with regard to oil and gas-related contamination did not provide unusual, novel insights.   For example, >Wernham (2007) reinforced the concern among Alaska Natives of the North Slope with regard to effects of oil and gas development of human health and culture.  Among other things, Wernham’s analyses suggested that such development could have negative impacts including increased prevalence of: a) diabetes and related metabolic conditions, b) substance abuse, domestic violence and suicide, c) serious injuries, and d) exposure to harmful chemicals.  Potential benefits of oil and gas development were primarily financial, leading among other things to increased infrastructure and funding for health care.    Wernham concluded by urging that public health issues be included explicitly in Environmental Impact Statements

The potential benefits of our preliminary work are clear.   Providing scientific information to communities that will promote public confidence to continue consumption of healthy traditional foods for which nutritional value is documented (marine and coastal fish and mammals) is critical. In addition, subsistence communities sometimes view with suspicion alarming media reports about contaminants and food safety, and the process our project employs may increase such communities’ confidence in science and the scientific method to help them address food safety and palatability questions that may arise.  Socioeconomic conditions (remote, expensive and limited selections of alternative food, etc.) do not allow for many nutritious and affordable choices. These alternatives are also considered major causes of the current “outbreaks” of diseases such as obesity and diabetes in rural Native communities (Verbrugge and Middaugh 2004).

The traditional world of the Inupiat continues to be under considerable pressure.    As industrial activities may expand to seek and acquire rich oil and gas resources, there is significantly increased potential risk of exposure to anthropogenic petroleum hydrocarbon pollution for the Inupiat themselves, for their traditional foods, and for the environment on which they all depend.     Although all possible damage may not be mitigated, appropriate scientific assessments of contamination levels and risk, coupled with an aggressive outreach program, can empower and allow the Inupiat to make informed lifestyle choices.

References:

Journal Articles:

No journal articles submitted with this report: View all 13 publications for this project

Supplemental Keywords:

human health, indicators, community-based, environmental chemistry, zoology, toxicology, North Slope AK, food processing, human health, geographic area, scientific discipline, health, risk assessments, health risk assessment, exposure, ecology and ecosystems, state, toxic environmental contaminants, human health risk, biomarker based exposure inference, dietary exposure, petroleum waste, PAH, Inupiat, human exposure;, Health, Scientific Discipline, Geographic Area, HUMAN HEALTH, Health Risk Assessment, Exposure, State, Risk Assessments, PAH, Inupiat, human exposure, toxic environmental contaminants, Alaska (AK), dietary exposure, biomarker based exposure inference, human health risk

Progress and Final Reports:

Original Abstract
  • 2004
  • 2005