A hazard of snacking on beached whales

Further fodder for nutritionists who warn against indiscriminate snacking:

Outbreak of Botulism Type E Associated with Eating a Beached Whale — Western Alaska, July 2002,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, vol. 52, No. 2, January 17, 2003.

Additional detail appeared in a later report:

Botulism type E outbreak associated with eating a beached whale, Alaska,” Joseph B. McLaughlin, Jeremy Sobel, Tracey Lynn, Elizabeth Funk, and John P. Middaugh, Emerging Infectious Diseases, vol. 10, no. 9 (2004). The authors write:

“We report an outbreak of botulism that occurred in July 2002 in a group of 12 Alaskan Yu’pik Eskimos who ate blubber and skin from a beached beluga whale. Botulism death rates among Alaska Natives have declined in the last 20 years, yet incidence has increased….

On July 12, 2002, two residents of a Yup’ik village in western Alaska found a carcass of a beached beluga whale that appeared to have died sometime that spring. They collected the tail fluke for consumption, cut it into pieces, and put the pieces in sealable plastic bags. Portions were refrigerated and distributed to family and friends. From July 13 to July 15, a total of 14 persons ate some of the raw muktuk. On July 17, a physician from western Alaska reported three suspected cases of botulism from this village; all patients had eaten the muktuk. The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services began an immediate investigation….

Eating blubber from whale carcasses as described in this outbreak is in accordance with tradition; however, strong blubber in airtight sealable plastic bags, which can create an anaerobic environment, is a modern development. The use of airtight containers to store and ferment traditional foods is theorized to be at least partly responsible for the increase in incidence of foodborne botulism in Alaska from 1970 to 1997

(Thanks to investigator Kristine Danowski for bringing this to our attention.)

BONUS: “eBay ends auction for beached sperm whale in Newfoundland” [report in The Star, Tuesday, May 6, 2014, about a different beached whale in a different place]

BONUS (mostly unrelated): “Female North Atlantic right whales produce gunshot sounds