General information

During the early 1980’s, the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management (DWM) initiated work on contaminant levels in bowhead whales. Concerns about contaminants increased, in part due to results of work on animals in other areas in the Arctic that showed very high levels of contaminants from man-made sources. Therefore, the DWM began an intensive study to determine the levels of various man-made and naturally occurring substances to help better understand questions about levels of contaminants in our environment and animals of the North Slope.

For a number of years, scientists of the DWM, along with visiting scientists and graduate students, collected tissues from various subsistence species from Alaska’s North Slope through the cooperation of Alaskan Native hunters. The DWM began its now internationally recognized intensive study of contaminants in 1995, led by Dr. Todd O’Hara, due to growing concerns of local residents regarding the effects of environmental contamination on their traditional subsistence foods and wildlife resources. Dr. O’Hara reviewed the Department work started by Dr. Tom Albert and expanded the efforts to eventually include documenting the nutritional benefits of North Slope traditional subsistence foods, starting with the bowhead whale.

Many locally caught marine and terrestrial mammals, seabirds, and marine and freshwater fish have been tested for contaminants, including organochlorines (like PCB and DDT), polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH‚ÄĒcontamination from oil), heavy metals (like mercury and lead), and radionuclides (or radioactive particles).

Results of these studies show that, for the most part, contamination of northern Alaskan animals is low compared to other areas of the Arctic. At this time the levels of these contaminants are recognized as below levels of concern. This is all good news and we have local documentation that our traditional foods are healthy.

There is a need to continue to monitor the levels for these contaminants over time, in order to determine if levels are increasing, decreasing, or staying the same. As we gather new data, additional information will be added to this site. Specific studies on bowhead whales and fish and other species are found on other webpages on our site. Below you can read about general information on the contaminant levels and the nutritional value of subsistence foods on the North Slope.

Bertha Leavitt, Eunice Leavitt and Mary Brower at Apugauti in Barrow

Serving of fish quaq, maktak and whale meat. Photo: Craig George


Contaminants and Nutrients in Subsistence Foods: Common Language Report

Project Leaders Taqulik Hepa, Cyd Hanns, Cheryl Rosa, D.V.M, Ph.D.
Collaborators Todd O’Hara, D.V.M., Ph.D., Victoria Woshner, D.V.M., Ph.D.(NSB-DWM), Leslie Pierce (Barrow High School)
Funding Coastal Impact Assistance Program


This purpose of this project was to provide information on contaminants and nutrition of subsistence foods to the general public in a plain language format, based primarily on local research results. Students at Barrow High School helped in the form of science fair projects and an informational video production. Completed in 2006.

Project Title: 

Contaminant and Nutrient Ecology in Coastal Marine Fish and Mammal Foods of Northern Alaska Residents: Development and Implementation of a Common Language Report and Presentation.

General Information:

Typically, contaminants are defined as impurities or substances that should not be present in the material under consideration. The word contaminant generally implies that a potentially harmful substance is present; and, their effect can depend on different factors such as: amount (or dose), type of contaminant, type of exposure, age of person, or type of organism exposed. Contaminants may be natural or man-made and occur to some extent in all food items whether store-bought or subsistence-gathered.

Research related to North Slope subsistence hunted animals indicates that:

  • Levels of contaminants are generally low on the North Slope, and most are lower than other areas in the Arctic.
    • The health benefits of eating North Slope subsistence foods are recognized to outweigh the risks of being exposed to low levels of contaminants.
  • Nutrient levels confirmed that bowhead whale and other traditional subsistence foods provide many nutrients valuable to human health.
    • Benefits include:
      • Provide energy and contain many valuable nutrients.
      • Promote good health.
      • May convey a greater resistance to disease such as diabetes and heart disease.
      • Help build blood and nerve cells.
      • Build and repair the body and promote healthy immune systems.
  • NIQIPIAQ (or local food) is SAFE and HEALTHY to eat and is essential to I√Īupiat well-being.
    • Eating traditional foods, combined with the healthiest of store-bought foods, and participating in traditional hunting, camping and sharing continues to benefit our way of life.
  • The bowhead whale has among the¬†lowest¬†concentrations of organochlorine contaminants of any marine mammal studied in the world. It is a highly nutritious subsistence food.

An example of a Whaling Captain’s Open House serving

Although the levels of contaminants found in the North Slope overall are among the lowest in the Arctic, and the associated risks to human health are very low, it is important to continue to collect baseline contaminant data to monitor levels over time.


Booklet outlines the results of this project

During this project, information on serving sizes of bowhead whale by whaling captain’s during their open house was gathered. The information is outlined in the following charts.

Here’s some information on nutrients found in bowhead whale tissues (per 100 g serving):

Research reference papers:

More journal articles on this topic can be viewed here for bowhead whales.

  • CIFAR-funded Publications List – This document lists the relevant citations to the CIFAR ‚ÄúFeeding Ecology‚ÄĚ project, which includes studies on: arctic fox (OCs and heavy metals); fish, seals and belugas (OCs and stable isotopes); three species of seals (heavy metals and stable isotopes), bowhead and gray whales (heavy metals and stable isotopes), and others.

Saying a prayer before serving the feast at Nalukataq in Barrow. Photo credit: Bill Hess

Updates on Contaminants in Subsistence Foods

Hydrocarbon Sensitivity in Waterfowl

Other Contaminant Studies

More Information on Traditional Foods

Alaska Traditional Knowledge and Native Foods Database.

Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium: Center for Climate and Health Bulletins РGo to this website for information on health concerns related to climate change. Here are some examples of bulletins that can be found on these websites:

Common Plants of the North Slope – This NSB-DWM webpage contains descriptions and pictures of some of the more common plants found on the North Slope. The descriptions include information on traditional uses of some plants.

Eating Well with Canada’s Food Guide РGo to this website from Health Canada for information on healthy eating. Download the Food Guide for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis.

First EIS Human Health Impact Assessment¬†Wernham, A. 2007.¬†Inupiat Health and Proposed Alaskan Oil Development: Results of the First Integrated HIA/EIS for Proposed Oil Development on Alaska’s North Slope.¬†EcoHealth¬†4:500-513.

Iqaluich Niń°i√Īaqtuat: Fish That We Eat – This report, written by Anore Jones, documents the traditional I√Īupiaq knowledge of fish as food, including names, sketches, identification details, brief life histories, and recipes for gathering, preparation and use.

Nutrition Fact Sheet Series – Inuit Traditional Foods – Nutritional information on subsistence foods, produced by the Government of Nunavat for teaching good nutrition in schools and health centers.

Nunavut Nutrition – Go to this website for information on healthy choices for country foods and some store bought foods. You will find a Food Guide and some recipes. There is also a children’s coloring book.

Radiation and Wild Food Safety.

State of Alaska Epidemiology Bulletins:

Traditional Foods are Healthy Foods.

Food Security and Climate Change

Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium: Center for Climate and Health Bulletins – Go to this website for information on health concerns related to climate change. Here are some examples of bulletins that can be found on these websites:


ICC Alaska and Food Security:

Alaskan Inuit Food Security Conceptual Framework: How to assess the Arctic from an Inuit perspective.

What Contaminants Are Found in the Arctic and How Do They Get Here?

Adapted from Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme

Contaminants of concern include:

  • Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) – Industrial chemicals (ex: PCB), industrial byproducts (ex: dioxins, hexacholorobenzene), and pesticides (ex: DDT, chlordane).
  • Heavy metals – Byproducts of fossil fuel combustion, waste incineration, mining processes (ex: Cadmium, mercury).
  • Radionuclides – Releases from past testing of nuclear weapons, nuclear accidents, nuclear fuel reprocessing, and nuclear waste dumping and storage.
  • Petroleum hydrocarbons – Spills or discharges from shipping, pipelines, drilling operations.

Pathways of contaminants to the Arctic

More Information on Petroleum Hydrocarbons

Go to this page (click here for the pdf version) or this page (click here for pdf version) on the CDC website.

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