By Dr. Dennis Apeti, Physical Scientist
Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment (CCMA)
National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS)
Alaska Native Communities Approach NOAA for Answers About Status of Potential Contaminants in Subsistence Seafood
In 2007, NCCOS scientists at the Center for Coastal Monitoring and Assessment (CCMA), COAST branch, were approached by the Chugach Regional Resources Commission (CRRC), an Alaska Native-led resource management body tasked with supporting interests of seven Native Alaskan Tribes residing in the Chugach region of Southcentral Alaska, over concerns about local seafood. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, many members of these communities had concerns regarding the safety of the fish and shellfish harvested from Prince William Sound and adjacent areas, a staple in their subsistence diet.
Subsistence as a Way of Life
I’d like to provide a little background on a subsistence way of life and why subsistence foods are of concern in Alaska coastal villages (areas of this country considered by most to be pristine and free of pollution).
Subsistence hunting and fishing is a way rural communities support themselves through harvesting wild resources as their primary source of food. Native and other rural communities throughout Alaska generally rely on subsistence harvests to a far greater degree than most other locations in the US. People in these communities collect and consume wild game, fish, shellfish, and birds as their primary source of protein, rather than purchasing food in traditional supermarkets.
One challenge for Alaska communities that primarily sustain themselves by subsistence is that there is no systematic testing for contaminants in the resources being consumed. If unmonitored, subsistence food contamination could be a serious environmental health and social concern to Native Alaska communities. To address the concerns of some of the Alaska Native communities of Southcentral Alaska, CCMA scientists like myself began a series of collaborative projects in partnership with Alaska Native communities in the Chugach region to collect data in an effort to address concerns from the Native communities.
I worked with the communities of Port Graham, Nanawalek, Seldovia, Qutekcak and Tatitlek to develop collection protocols, site selection, and species collection for testing of contaminants and disease for fish and shellfish resources important to those communities.
NOAA Teams up with Qutekcak Community to Study Shellfish Species
Assessing health and safety associated with commonly consumed subsistence shellfish species (littleneck clams, soft shell clams, mussels, and cockles) is one of the collaborative research projects CCMA developed with CRRC and the Alaska Native community of Qutekcak, on Resurrection Bay, AK. The shellfish were collected from Qutekcak traditional harvest grounds in Resurrection Bay and processed at the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery in Seward, Alaska. The shellfish were analyzed for contaminants and diseases. A broad suite of contaminants were analyzed,
including 55 Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH) , 27 chlorinated pesticides (including DDT and its break-down products), 37 Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), 16 major and trace elements (e.g. mercury, aluminum, iron, and lead, among others), and tributyl-tin and its break-down products. The health of the shellfish was further characterized based on the presence of an array of 30 different types of parasites (e.g. chlamydia and nematodes) and 11 diseases (e.g. tumors). As a part of this study, interspecies concentration factors (ICFs) that relate chemical concentrations in mussels to those in other shellfish, were also determined. The ICF work helped us to determine if the shellfish pick up contaminants in a way that’s similar to mussels, a species we regularly monitor. By knowing the ICF, we can look at patterns of contamination in the mussels and have an indication what is happening in the subsistence shellfish without having to collect and analyze every species.
NOAA Science Complements Native Traditional Knowledge
NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) conducts monitoring in coastal waters nationwide, providing data to assist managers, policy makers, and community leaders responsible for overseeing coastal resources. With the demands of doing more with less, scientists at CCMA are working increasingly with partners, such as Alaska Native Tribal groups. Our partners are involved in all aspects of our monitoring and research projects, from the selection of sampling sites based on their traditional and local knowledge, to sampling and data interpretation.
In this collaborative approach to monitoring, our partners use their on-site resources to conduct field work while we cover analytical costs. Then, NOAA scientists and our partners work together in the interpretation of the data and broadcast of the results. Further, our study partners also take an active role in the design and execution of the research. They can suggest studies or additional monitoring sites to better address their management needs, while at the same time providing NOAA the opportunity to save on costs that would be incurred by getting our researchers into the field for sampling.
Initial Study Results Indicated Subsistence Foods are Safe to Community Members
Initial data from this project indicated that, although heavy metals and organic contaminants were detected in the subsistence shellfish, concentrations were relatively low compared to the Food and Drug Administration guidelines for seafood safety (FDA action levels). Also, infections and tissue pathology in the shellfish were generally minor and the conditions appear to be neither a threat to the health of the shellfish nor to the humans that consume them. However, since many contaminants, especially the organics and the organo-metals complex (e.g. as methyl-mercury), are persistent and tend to bioconcentrate, chronic exposure through long-term consumption of those food sources may constitute a health risk. CCMA plans to publish this study within the next 2 years.
Lessons Learned Beyond the Lab
To community resources managers, this study provided the assurance they were seeking as to the safety of consuming their traditional seafood.
In addition to the research results, I found the collaboration aspect of this project to be incredibly rewarding. It was great to have the opportunity to work more closely with Alaska Native communities to co-develop and implement a research study as a means for answering questions they had regarding their subsistence foods sources. In addition to providing our data and reports to coastal managers, we are, for the first time in my experience at NOAA, working hand-in-hand with coastal communities on issues of health and safety, and learning more about these communities. This work has allowed me to learn about the people, their history, and their culture as well as how NOAA science has a role to play in answering questions at the citizen level.
NCCOS/CCMA Blogger Biography: Born in Togo, Dr. Dennis Apeti specializes in monitoring and forecasting the impacts of legacy chemicals and contaminants of emerging concern (CECs) in coastal ecosystems. He was part of NOAA’s response team for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and is currently leading a study that forecasts the impacts of tropical storms on pollutant concentrations in shellfish throughout the Southeastern and Gulf Coasts. He serves as the lead scientist on a collaborative research project with the Chugach Tribes, seven Tribes of Alaska Native people living in the areas around Prince William Sound and southeastern Cook Inlet, developing and conducting a collaborative research project on health impacts associated with subsistence shellfish consumption in Alaska. Prior to joining NOAA, Dr. Apeti taught for three years and twice served as a guest scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where he was an active mentor for undergraduate students in the field of environmental science. While at NOAA, he has continued to serve as a mentor and advisor to undergraduate and graduate interns and fellows. He earned a B.S. and M.S natural science from the University of Benin. Dr. Apeti also holds a B.S. in Chemistry from Florida Atlantic University and as M.S. and Ph.D. in environmental science from Florida A&M (FAMU). Dr. Apeti is a member of the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC), as well as the National Organization of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE).