Mixing science with traditional knowledge, researchers hope to get seal oil on the menu

In 2016 the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation recommended Alaska Sea Grant seafood specialists Chris Sannito and Brian Himelbloom pay a visit to Kotzebue, to evaluate the traditional process of rendering seal oil from blubber chunks.

Seal oil has sustained indigenous people of Alaska for thousands of years and is an important traditional food for Alaska Natives. In Kotzebue, operators of the Maniilaq Association elder care facility wanted to serve seal oil to residents, but Alaska DEC required a rendering process that ensures product safety because it’s associated with botulism. The traditional rendering process is at room temperature, so the botulism-causing bacteria are not killed by heat.

To help solve the problem, Sannito and Himelbloom tested the oil samples and brought in a botulism expert from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who visited Kotzebue and Kodiak and conducted experiments in his Wisconsin laboratory. Sannito and Himelbloom work at the Kodiak Seafood and Marine Science Center, part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

In 2017 the research teams in Kodiak, Kotzebue and Wisconsin identified acidity level as a critical safety control point in the traditional process, which they believe can be controlled. Sannito and Himelbloom continue to assist, as they develop a required food processing plan to minimize safety risks for the Maniilaq Association.

Read more in a story by Anne Hillman, Alaska Public Media, who interviewed the Kotzebue research team.