From: Nadine Slimak, Mote Marine Laboratory
Published September 23, 2004 06:20 PM

Research on Ice


Heavy white clouds give way to white expanse. It's hard to tell where sky ends and ground begins as the plane lands in Barrow, Alaska. The contrast between Mote's blue-water and green-palm-tree home base in Sarasota and the remote white, white and ever-so-white world that Dr. Dana Wetzel and Dr. John Reynolds will call home for the next six days couldn't be more extreme.


Especially when you factor in the wind chill, which puts the temperature somewhere around 30 below.


To call Barrow remote is an understatement. The Arctic city of 4,500 people is the northernmost town in North America and more than 4,500 miles - as the /cold /crow flies - from Sarasota. The city sits at the top of the North Slope Borough of Alaska, which has about 7,500 total residents living in an area the size of Wyoming.


Reynolds and Wetzel have left comfortable blue and green Florida for this icy white landscape to study bowhead whales during the mammals' annual migration from winter grounds in the Bering Sea to summer feeding grounds in the Beaufort Sea. They're gathering information on whether petroleum hydrocarbons - chemical compounds that come from crude oil - are affecting the diet of the Inupiat, who have been hunting these whales from sealskin boats for thousands of years. The study is also looking at bearded seals, another important element in the native diet.


Inupiat families have grown increasingly concerned about contamination by petroleum hydrocarbons and heavy metals. "There was a whaling captain from Point Hope who harvested a couple of whales that didn't look right. He was concerned, so he wanted us to look into it," says Charles D. N. Brower, director of the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management. "This summer, my son ran into some bearded seals that were sick. The blubber is usually 2 to 3 inches thick. The blubber in these seals was only a 1/2-inch to inch thick. A bearded seal was sick and there was jelly formed in the meat cavity."


The concern grows with talk of more Arctic oil drilling, Reynolds says. "There is a major wellfield - the Northstar field - that is already open and others may open in the future." At its peak, the Northstar field will pump 70,000 to 80,000 barrels a day.


Reynolds, Wetzel and their co-investigators with Brower's agency and private research firms combine a number of scientific tools for assessing petroleum hydrocarbon levels in whale and seal meat and blubber to find out whether oil residues are getting into the Inupiat diet. They will also use ground-breaking techniques for analyzing fatty acids to create a physiological profile of the nutritional value of blubber and meat. "If the Inupiat make a switch to a Western diet because of concerns over their traditional diet, it may not be as beneficial because of their generations of eating subsistence harvest foods," Wetzel says.


The science will supplement more traditional Inupiat tools - sight, smell, experience passed down by each generation - to help residents ensure the health and safety of their food supply.


"The local people know how it looks and tastes and what the structure of the meat and muktuk (blubber) is supposed to look like," says Brower.


"When it doesn't look normal, it raises a concern."


"The hunt: A cultural identity*


The spring whale hunt is more than a way for an Inupiat village to sustain itself through the long, cold and dark Alaskan winters. It is a people's connection to its ancestry and to each other and still very much a community event. Alaska natives are legally entitled to take whales and other marine mammals for subsistence, according to the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Three-quarters of the people in Barrow still consume the bowhead whale that is portioned out after a successful hunt. Half of them still eat bearded seal.


"Canned food or a ham sandwich doesn't really have the warmth like muktuk," Brower says. "Studies tell us that traditional foods have more protein and nutritional value to our systems, instead of hamburger, steak or chicken. You can be on the ice and eat a ham sandwich but it doesn't do any good. It's not like taking a frozen fish and dipping it in seal oil - that warms you up for the day."


Forty-two whaling captains are responsible for the hunt - and crew safety. "It's amazing," Wetzel says. "The ice conditions can change at any time, so the crews have to be ready to act fast and break camp if the ice or winds shift. It's up to the captain to keep the crew safe."


Brower, a co-captain himself, is well-acquainted with danger. A few years ago, the ice did break off, stranding the whaling crews on an ice pan that was floating farther and farther from the shore. "You sit tight then drift away until the search and rescue units can pick you up. It's dangerous when the ice is breaking and crumbling right where your feet are."


Every member of the crew is assigned a job, and the group acts in concert if weather conditions change or if a whale is spotted. During the last spring hunt, with the researchers waiting back at the lab, the hunting crews were plagued by strong west winds that closed the ice leads - breaks in the ice that act as traveling lanes for whales - and made hunting impossible.


When the winds finally shifted east, they were too strong to be navigated in the traditional hand-paddled Inupiat boats - called umiaqs - which are made by women who stretch bearded seal skin and sew it onto wooden frames.


For researchers and whaling crews, it's a waiting game.


On the ice, crews watch the water for whales. They talk. They play cards. "You wait patiently," Brower says.


Back at the lab, researchers play cards. Read. Talk.


Anticipation builds without even the complete change of day to night to break the monotony during Alaska's long hours of daylight. Howling winds shatter sleep. At 2 a.m., winds finally give way to whale.


*A whale *


The research crew struggles out of bed. It takes more than a half-hour to dress: Thermal long johns, sweat pants, shirts, sweaters, several pairs of socks, scarves, quilted canvas overalls, insulated Arctic jackets and boots, hats, hoods, chemical boot warmers, glove liners, insulated gloves, chemical hand warmers, goggles and something to cover their faces.


Layers help protect them from the cold they encounter on their miles-long snow machine ride through broken blue ice mounds and ever larger mountains of ice to meet the whaling crew.


Snow machines bump and skip this way and that as they slide on the slippery, eight-mile trail carved on the frozen Arctic Ocean. "We're dog sledding across the Arctic," Wetzel yells into a hand-held tape recorder as the snow machine traverses fissures and precipices. "It's very rough."


The researchers join about 100 villagers at the edge of the frozen water where everyone - oldest to youngest, researcher to whaling crew member - pitches in to haul a 30-foot whale from ocean to ice using only heavy rope and block and tackle. Bowhead whales, which grow to an estimated 60 feet, weigh about a ton or more per foot. "It's exhausting work," says Wetzel.


Once the animal is on the ice, Wetzel and Reynolds ask the captain's permission to step in to take samples of blubber and meat as the bowhead is divided. "Without the help of the hunters themselves, we wouldn't be able to do these studies at all," Reynolds says.


This study is predicated on using an interdisciplinary approach to answer key questions about the health of bowhead whales and bearded seals - questions important to the health and well-being of the Inupiat people, Reynolds says.


Fatty acids, essential to human health, regulate hormone and energy levels and help the body's immune system perform properly to ward off infection. Omega-3 fatty acids, termed "essential" because human bodies don't naturally produce them, are found in high levels in the blubber and tissues of some cold water fish and marine mammals - in the bowhead whale at the center of the Inupiat harvest.


*What's in the blubber?


The question hangs in the frigid Arctic air, suspended above a whaling crew braving dangerous mountains of ice to feed their families.


Some of the first studies of omega-3 fatty acids were done with native populations in the 1970s. Those studies showed that the subsistence Arctic diet is healthier than the store-bought pre-packaged diet of most Americans.


But in 1987, the safety of one traditional diet was questioned after a researcher in Quebec discovered levels of PCBs that were off the charts in the breast milk of nursing Inuit women in Nunavik, an Arctic province in Quebec. The subsistence diet of fish and sea mammals was hurting the development of babies after contaminants built up in the bodies of the animals they ate.


The contaminants arrive in the Arctic after traveling on wind and water currents from more developed places on the globe - industrial American cities, countries with lax environmental regulations. The cold delays their breakdown, and they accumulate in the animals that live there.


And, eventually, in the families who rely on those whales.


While bowhead whales haven't shown high levels of contaminants, the Barrow Inupiats still worry. Sick whales are "still a rare occurrence, but we're concerned to see whether there are heavy metals or other contaminants," Brower says.


The study is being funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and has been funded in the past by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the North Slope Borough.


One thing was clear when the /Exxon Valdez /ran aground in 1989: Not enough studies had been done on petroleum hydrocarbons - those by-products of crude oil - and their effects on animals.


"It's universal," Wetzel says. "We're seeing contaminants manifest themselves in aquatic life. We recognize that native people eat a lot of wild-caught food and we're concerned about the environmental impacts of those diets."


In the search for contaminants, Reynolds and Wetzel test the whale samples taken as the animal is divided, then test samples after the food has been stored. They also test samples taken after traditional preparation. The process will allow them to see more clearly how contaminants - if found - got there.


Because Inupiat leaders have joined in the study, they can help relay the results to the people who call Barrow and the North Slope home - to the hunters, their families and future generations.


New research, new questions


The bowhead whale and bearded seal research in Barrow is being translated to other communities and new animal populations. By bringing the fields of chemistry, molecular biology and marine mammal biology together in one forum, Drs. Dana Wetzel and John Reynolds are able to create more integrated efforts that look at entire ecosystems, overall species health, and even show how humans, as part of the ecosystem, are affected by change.


In Alaska, a grant to begin studies of the fatty acids of polar bears will partner Wetzel and Reynolds with colleagues from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska Nanuuq Commission. The goal is to determine whether bear feeding patterns have shifted from eating mostly ring seals to eating the more available bearded seals and other species. If polar bears are eating more bearded seals, they may become less available for the Inupiat.


But not all branches of this research are equally funded. Wetzel and Reynolds are still seeking project support for contaminant research in the Aleutian Islands, the Bering Straits and Hawaii and to expand fatty acid research to animals in Florida and New Zealand.


In the Aleutian Islands, Reynolds and Wetzel are modeling a study after the ongoing Alaska work, combining a nutritional analysis of a subsistence lifestyle with contaminant testing and education. Animals studied there will include clams, fish and Stellar sea lions.


In Hawaii, petroleum hydrocarbons may be leaching into the environment. That could be one factor affecting the health there of monk seals, the most endangered marine mammal in U.S. waters, Reynolds says. "Monk seal survival on certain atolls in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands where they live has declined precipitously, especially among the juveniles. The concern is why."


One theory is that there is not enough for the seals to eat, a problem that could be caused by human fishing activities or from a change in the physical or ecological attributes of the area.


In Florida and New Zealand, assessing changes in fatty acid profiles could shed light on the effects of red tide and other harmful algal blooms in animals such as manatees and dolphins.


But the answers won't be forthcoming until the studies can begin.


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For More Information about this research or to interview Drs. Dana Wetzel or John Reynolds, please contact Nadine Slimak, Public Relations Manager, Mote Marine Laboratory, at 941-388-4441, ext. 417 or nadines@mote.org


To view pictures please go to www.mote.org and click on the picture of the Mote News Magazine.


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