Along Alaska’s west coast, it’s difficult to underestimate the culinary importance of one ubiquitous condiment: seal oil.
Seal oil is packed with vitamin D, omega-3 fats and all kinds of other dietary nutrients. Its cultural significance is also immeasurable. “It would be really, really, really, really bad, if we lost that,” said Shishmaref resident Dennis Davis.
He cooks all the time. His social media feeds are packed full of photos: musk ox burgers, deep-fried balls of sheefish and smelt eggs with rice. He said nearly all those dishes are topped with a little seal oil. “Seal oil is like soy sauce and Tabasco. You never leave home or have a meal without them,” he said.
Changing Ice, Changing Culture
Traditionally, spring is the season to hunt bearded seal, or ugruk in Inupiaq. Hunters render the oil from ugruk blubber. But spring is coming earlier on the sea ice and that means the hunting season is shorter.
The ice is also thinner. Two years ago, Davis bought a drone to photograph sea ice near Shishmaref. He was concerned about safety when friends and neighbors went out to hunt in the spring. “What we have now is really junk ice,” he said. In Shishmaref, hunters normally use a snow machine to pull their boats 3–5km (2–3 miles) out on the ice. If it’s too thin, they can’t get to the seals. “The only way to adapt is we’re going to have to go farther north with our boats,” said Davis.
A hundred kilometers (60 miles) south in Nome, lifelong hunter Roy Ashenfelter is concerned for an old friend and elder. “She’s hoarding whatever seal oil she has left,” he said. Ashenfelter advocates for subsistence hunters on behalf of Kawerak, a nonprofit corporation that serves Alaska natives throughout the Bering Straits region. He doesn’t underestimate the impact of thin, unreliable ice on the spring hunt, but he said it’s more complex. “Her grandsons haven’t been able to replenish her supply.” He said they simply haven’t been hunting. “The opportunity is there,” Ashenfelter said, but he added that fewer and fewer young people know how to hunt ugruk, or choose to do so.
The Science of Seal Oil
The kinds of nutrients found in traditional foods – including long-chain omega-3 fatty acids – protect against chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Andrea Bersamin, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Center for Alaska Native Health Research, said diseases that plague Indigenous populations are on the rise among native people. “This is especially concerning with kids, who consume the lowest levels of traditional foods, including seal oil,” she said.
The center has been collecting dietary data from the Yukon-Kuskokwim region for the past 15 years. “Seal oil comprises about 17 percent of the energy that comes from traditional food,” Bersamin said. “Our research really shows that the health of Alaska native people is tightly linked to the health of a traditional food system.”
What people are replacing seal oil with isn’t nearly as healthy. Scientists cite so-called Eskimo ice cream as an example. Known as akutaq in Yupik, it was traditionally made with seal oil, berries and wild greens. “Today, people are shifting toward making it with Crisco instead and adding quite a bit of sugar,” said Bersamin. “If they’re replacing traditional foods with more market-based foods, we’re going to see rates of chronic diseases increasing,” she said.
Adaptation on the Menu
Ashenfelter laughed nervously after he gave some thought to what his life would be like without seal oil. “I’d probably go crazy,” he said. “We all eat it in so many different native foods,” he explained. “I like it with ptarmigan breasts.”
In villages above the Arctic Circle, such as Kiana and Noorvik, the locals dip strips of caribou meat in seal oil. Farther south, along Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, people eat it with dried fish. At least one Iditarod sled-dog race champion even spikes his dog’s mid-race meals with it.
Davis said he doesn’t know of any efforts among the people in his village to find ways to replace the kinds of nutrients that would be lost if jars of seal oil disappeared from Alaska native tables. “You’d have to get it from a supplement,” said Bersamin. “And then that’s problematic, because … it’s a much poorer source of omega-3s.”
Ashenfelter is taking a different approach. He and his nephew recently went hunting for ugruk out on the ice near Nome. He might go out again, even though he said he has enough oil right now. Besides, he added, it’s just tradition that anyone in his community goes out for ugruk in the spring. “There are several seasons for seal hunting,” Ashenfelter said. “If you really want to make seal oil, you can do it year round.”
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