Human Health Implications of Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids in Blubber of the Bowhead Whale (<i>Balaena mysticetus</i>)

  • John E. Reynolds, III
  • Dana L. Wetzel
  • Todd M. O'Hara
Keywords: blubber, bowhead whale, diet, fatty acids, health, omega-3, omega-6

Abstract

Concerns exist regarding the health and nutrition of subsistence-based communities in Alaska. An apparent increase in diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and other disease conditions among Alaska Natives has accompanied their change from a traditional diet to a more “Western” diet. In northern Alaska, the meat, maktak (epidermis and blubber), and other products of bowhead whales provide important components of Native diets. This study assessed the fatty acid constituents of bowhead whale blubber to evaluate their possible health benefits. Working with hunters in Barrow, Alaska, we acquired samples for chemical analysis from five blubber depths at each of six body locations. We used gas chromatography-mass spectrometry of fatty-acid picolinyl esters to confirm the fatty-acid composition of samples. Analyses indicated that bowhead blubber contains relatively high levels of omega-3 fatty acids and that, on average, blubber samples from sites at the umbilical girth contain more omega-3 fatty acids than do samples from a girth 1 m caudal to the blowhole (roughly at the axillary girth). Omega-6 fatty acids were rare or undetectable in all samples. Omega-3 fatty acids have been suggested or shown to be important in the treatment or prevention of many diseases, including elevated blood pressure and cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, depression, and some cancers. Beyond the cultural benefits associated with subsistence hunting of bowhead whales, consumption of bowhead whale blubber provides some important health and nutritional benefits.

Published
2009-12-18