In this Oct. 28, 2016, photo provided by the Maniilaq Association, Alex Whiting, left, and Cyrus Harris, right, are observed by Chris Sannito, second from left, and Brian Himelbloom, third from left, of the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center as they trim and clean seal blubber in Kotzebue, Alaska. In January 2021, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation approved seal oil to be served at a Maniilaq elder care home, believed to be a first for seal oil in the U.S. (Maniilaq Association via AP)

In this Oct. 28, 2016, photo provided by the Maniilaq Association, Alex Whiting, left, and Cyrus Harris, right, are observed by Chris Sannito, second from left, and Brian Himelbloom, third from left, of the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center as they trim and clean seal blubber in Kotzebue, Alaska. In January 2021, the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation approved seal oil to be served at a Maniilaq elder care home, believed to be a first for seal oil in the U.S. (Maniilaq Association via AP)

Cultural ‘big deal’: Seal oil makes menu at Alaska care home

Seal oil is back on the menu for Inupiat elders.

By Mark Thiessen

Associated Press

ANCHORAGE — Seal oil has been a staple in the diet of Alaska’s Inupiat for generations.

The oil — ever-present in households dotting Alaska coastlines — is used mainly as a dipping sauce for fish, caribou and musk ox. It’s also used to flavor stews and even eaten alone.

But when Inupiat elders entered nursing homes, they were cut off from the comfort food. State regulations didn’t allow seal oil because it’s among traditionally prepared Alaska Native foods that have been associated with the state’s high rate of botulism, which can cause illness or death.

That’s changing for 18 residents at Utuqqanaat Inaat — in English, a place for elders — a part of the Maniilaq Health Association in the Chukchi Sea community of Kotzebue, about 550 miles northwest of Anchorage. The association has worked with partners in Alaska and the Lower 48 to develop a process to kill the toxin in seal oil and make it safe for consumption.

Last month, Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation approved its use in elder homes, believed to be a first for seal oil in the U.S.

Maniiliq staff members and an ad hoc seal oil task force worked for more than five years with two universities to develop a way to eliminate the botulinum toxin without dramatically changing the taste or reducing the nutritional value of seal oil.

The effort began when Maniilaq was in the early stages of starting a traditional food program, said Chris Dankmeyer, its environmental health manager and a commissioned officer with the U.S. Public Health Service.

“The No. 1 crucial food that everybody wanted was seal oil, but we weren’t able to give them that,” he said.

Discussions were initiated to determine the safety risk of seal oil and possible ways to control it. Maniilaq staff worked with the task force, which included members across the state and nation, and that led to partnerships with the University of Alaska Fairbanks and its Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center, and with Eric Johnson, a botulism expert at the University of Wisconsin.

Most seal oil comes from subsistence hunters who are allowed by the U.S. government to harvest bearded, ringed and spotted seals in the Kotzebue area and to donate what they collect to non-profits and other facilities.

Cyrus Harris, hunter support and natural resources advocate for Maniilaq, said ringed seals — the source of recent batches of oil — can weigh anywhere from 40 to 80 pounds. A smaller seal will produce 3 to 4 gallons of oil after the blubber, which accounts for about half of a seal’s weight, is rendered.

Botulism has always been controlled by heat, but the questions for those involved in the seal oil project were how high should the heat be and how long should it be applied to destroy the toxin.

“You know, we could boil it, but that’s going to change the whole characterization, the whole nutritional value of seal oil,” Dankmeyer said. “That’s not what we wanted.”

Seal oil was shipped to the University of Wisconsin, where it was spiked with different toxins and tested at varying levels of heat and lengths of time. Researchers discovered that heating seal oil at 176 degrees Fahrenheit (80 degrees Celsius) for 2½ minutes destroys the toxins. To be extra safe, they decided to heat the oil for 10 minutes then keep it frozen so it doesn’t produce any additional toxins.

Harris said staff members at the Utuqqanaat Inaat facility must now be trained about safe handling, a process that is being slowed by the pandemic. Still, he expects seal oil will be available at the facility soon.

A driving force behind the research was Val Kreil, a former administrator of the nursing home. He made a promise to the elders that he would see the project through, even if he was no longer there. Two years ago, he moved to the Lower 48 but still maintained a presence with the project.

Now, Kreil wonders what additional uses the research could play in the safety of whale blubber and other traditional foods.

“After we were getting closer, we thought, my goodness, this could also help other people,” Kreil said from his home in South Carolina.

Elders at the facility, who range from their 60s to their 90s, have gotten tastes of seal oil in the past when relatives brought them food and it didn’t pass through the facility’s kitchen, where it would have been subject to state regulations.

But now the residents are excited about the prospect of having the oil anytime they want it, said Marcella Wilson, current administrator of the facility.

“They consider it a part of them, their being,” she said about the elders, recalling that some have said they “feel warm inside” and sleep all night after eating it.

“It’s a big deal culturally,” Wilson said.

This July 4, 2014, photo provided by Val Kreil shows a restaurant menu of food for sale, including Caribou soup, Eskimo Salad and Seal Oil at the community fairgrounds in Kotzebue, Alaska. The Maniilaq Health Association in the Chukchi Sea community of Kotzebue has received state approval to process and serve seal oil at its elder care facility in Kotzebue, believed to be a first for seal oil in the U.S. (Val Kreil via AP)

This July 4, 2014, photo provided by Val Kreil shows a restaurant menu of food for sale, including Caribou soup, Eskimo Salad and Seal Oil at the community fairgrounds in Kotzebue, Alaska. The Maniilaq Health Association in the Chukchi Sea community of Kotzebue has received state approval to process and serve seal oil at its elder care facility in Kotzebue, believed to be a first for seal oil in the U.S. (Val Kreil via AP)

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of June 15

Here’s what to expect this week.

James Whistler, 8, operates a mini excavator during Gold Rush Days on Saturday, June 17, 2023. People young and old were offered a chance to place tires around traffic cones and other challenges after getting a brief introduction to the excavator. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
There’s good reason to be extra charged up for this year’s Juneau Gold Rush Days

Digital registration for logging/mining competitors new for 32nd annual event this weekend.

Glory Hall Executive Director Mariya Lovishchuk points out some of the features of the homeless shelter’s new location a few days before it opens in July of 2021. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire file photo)
Mariya Lovishchuk stepping down after 15 years as executive director of the Glory Hall

Leader who oversaw big changes in Juneau’s homeless programs hopes to continue similar work.

Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people gather in Juneau for the opening of Celebration on June 5. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Federal judge considers lawsuit that could decide Alaska tribes’ ability to put land into trust

Arguments took place in early May, and Judge Sharon Gleason has taken the case under advisement.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Tuesday, June 18, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Monday, June 17, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Workers stand next to the Father Brown’s Cross after they reinstalled it at an overlook site on Mount Roberts on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of Hugo Miramontes)
Father Brown’s Cross is resurrected on Mount Roberts after winter collapse

Five workers put landmark back into place; possibility of new cross next year being discussed.

KINY’s “prize patrol” vehicle is parked outside the Local First Media Group Inc.’s building on Wednesday morning. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Juneau radio station KINY is using AI to generate news stories — how well does it get the scoop?

As trust and economics of news industry continue long decline, use and concerns of AI are growing.

Most Read