By Associated Press - Monday, August 11, 2014

NOME, Alaska (AP) - Subsistence hunters in western Alaska are helping collect blood specimens from mammals that will be tested for possible threats to food security.

Hunters in the Bering Strait region will collect blood samples on dried filter paper distributed by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. They will mail those along with notes on the type of animal, its sex, where it was collected and the date, Nome radio station KNOM reported Monday ( ).

The blood samples will be tested for metal agents like mercury, human-made contaminants like PCBs, and antibodies to pathogens that mammals have been exposed to.

Researchers believe that contaminants are increasing in the Arctic. If so, they could accumulate in the bodies of subsistence animals and threaten to make food scarce for communities in western Alaska.

The magnitude and what’s causing the threat isn’t yet known, said project leader James Berner, senior director for science at the Division of Community Health at the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

“We only know what they might be and what we’ve found in a few animals over the years,” he said. “And the way to deal with this is to be able to test the herds that you harvest from and find out what the prevalence of any given risk is.”

Federal agencies want to know about possible changes in Arctic wildlife but have a limited number of scientists, Berner said. Subsistence hunters already cover a broad geographic area and collect hundreds of potential samples.

The paper is easier to use than traditional blood collection methods, such as syringes and vials. Plus, the kits are easy to carry, increasing the chances hunters will take them along, said Richard Kuzuguk with the Shishmaref Environmental Program.

“Sometimes we travel 72 miles to a hunt area in the ocean,” said Kuzuguk, who got trained this summer on using the kits. “That would eliminate a lot of the weight that we carry back as far as our subsistence, because most of time, most hunters will think of the subsistence first, then the sampling secondary.”

He will help hand out kits in Shishmaref and expects 70 percent of the hunters to participate. They will be motivated following reports three years ago of hundreds of seals falling ill throughout the region, Kuzuguk said.

Shishmaref hunters will focus on bearded seals, the community’s primary food staple.

“We depend on bearded seal for a good portion of our diet year-round,” Kuzuguk said. “That area and concern with the health and safety with our subsistence food is a real high priority.”

The sampling program, funded by an Environmental Protection Agency grant of nearly $900,000, will run for three years.


Information from: KNOM-AM,

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