FAIRBANKS, Alaska (Sept. 28, 2023)Wildlife Conservation Society scientists led an initial assessment of concentrations of “forever chemicals” in the filets of fish species harvested by Indigenous and rural residents of Arctic Alaska. The researchers described their results as “encouraging” in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry because they were below levels of concern.

The chemicals, known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), include a group of manmade chemicals released into the environment at thousands of locations globally through industrial releases, firefighting foam testing and use, and long-range pollution. These chemicals are highly persistent in soil and water, can accumulate in the tissues of fish and wildlife, and are harmful to humans when ingested.

Lead author on the paper, WCS Fisheries Ecologist Kevin Fraley, noted that "Alaskans and other Arctic residents rely on wild-harvested fish for food security, and for Indigenous Peoples, subsistence fishing is integral to cultural identity. Based on these initial findings, it appears that PFAS are not present at high levels in the filets of sheefish, Dolly Varden, and other coastal Arctic fish that myself and many other Alaskans enjoy catching and eating. This is reassuring, given the extensive PFAS contamination of soil, water, and fish in other parts of Alaska."

The Hollywood feature film Dark Waters and the documentary The Devil We Know have brought the issue of PFAS-contamination into the public eye in recent years.

The brief study, a collaborative effort between WCS, the Native Village of Kotzebue, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, and the U.S. National Park Service, found very low or non-detectable levels (less than 3 micrograms/kilogram) of PFAS in the muscle tissue of the coastal and anadromous fish species examined.

These initial results are encouraging, as the levels of PFAS found are below the most conservative fish consumption guidelines set in the United States. The fish species assessed represent wild foods that are important for the food security of Iñupiat, Athabaskan, and other rural residents of Alaska.

Fish samples were collected in coastal lagoons of Cape Krusenstern National Monument and in the nearshore environment of the Beaufort Sea at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.

Though the results from this effort showed no evidence of PFAS contamination of coastal Arctic Alaska fish, there is an urgent need for assessment of wild foods near potential PFAS-contaminated sites and for the mitigation and cleanup of this contamination, globally.