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Native Alaskans eschew this oily diet.

Oil spilled from the Exxon Valdez supertanker fouled beaches and waters that have provided food and other vital resources to native peoples for the past 7,000 years. At the time of the spill, the diets of residents in 15 remote villages in the area of the spill still depended heavily on harvests of a diverse combination of marine mammals, fish, shellfish, birds, land mammals, and wild plants. Indeed, per capita consumption of subsistence foods by the more than 2,000 individuals -mainly Alutiiq- averaged between 200and 500 pounds annually in these communities, reports james Fall of Alaska's Department of Fish and Game in Anchorage. By comparison, he notes, each year the average U.S. family purchases 220 pounds of meat, fish, and poultry

Alter the spill, however, subsistence harvests of wildlife plummeted in the 10 villages that had witnessed the most visible and prolonged oil impacts. Surveys of 403 households revealed fear of toxic contamination as a major reason.

The resulting dietary shift threatened both the nutrition and economy of individuals in these villages - accessible only by air or water - and the cultural fabric of their society, Fall says. Subsistence hunting, gathering, and fishing "are usually cooperative family activities, during which young people learn the skills and values needed to survive," he explains.

Realizing that, health officials began advising villagers they could safely eat foods that didn't smell or taste of crude oil. But that recommendation "was generally received with skepticism and disbelief," Fall recalls. Moreover, an Oil Spill Health Task Force - made up of officials from state and federal agencies, Exxon, and associations representing the affected communities - rapidly discovered that there were no data on the extent to which subsistence foods were contaminated by Exxon Valdez oil or the risks such tainting might pose.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers tested tissue from 309 fish, 1,080 shellfish, 19 ducks, 16 deer, 33 harbor seals, and 10 sea lions and found elevated levels of several aromatic chemicals characteristic of oil contamination in many of the samples. But outside experts enlisted to evaluate the health risks of such tainting concluded that except for shellfish, the highest concentrations of the oil contaminants observed were "well below those considered to be of concern for human health," Fall says. And even the shell-fish could be eaten if collected from sites without obvious 'oil. Though the task force transmitted these findings to the native communities last June - more than three years after the spill -- Fall says that many villagers remain wary of the food's safety.
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Title Annotation:Alaskan villagers consume less wildlife since 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Feb 13, 1993
Words:422
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