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Inuit whalers warned after infectious ‘cat parasite’ found in belugas

Poco the beluga whale is seen in undated video image taken in the Bay of Fundy.

Handout/Whale Stewardship Project

University of British Columbia researchers have issued a health advisory to Inuit whalers after discovering an infectious cat parasite in belugas in the Arctic Ocean, a potentially fatal portent of climate change in the North.

Michael Grigg and Stephen Raverty, part of UBC's Marine Mammal Research Unit, presented their findings this week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science's annual meeting in Chicago. They contend the thawing of Arctic ice, borne through climate change, is responsible for the parasite's migration north.

"There's a series of pathogens circulating in the lower 48 of the United States, and they don't tend to go north because of cold temperatures," explained Grigg, in a video released by UBC. "And what's now happening… is pathogens that have created a status quo in the lower 48 are now emerging to cause disease among susceptible populations in the Arctic."

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The parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, is typically carried by cats, and is the leading cause of infectious blindness in humans. Severe cases of Toxoplasmosis can be fatal. It can be spread by the consumption of uncooked meat, which is a staple of the traditional diet of the region's Inuit peoples.

Beluga have been hunted by the Inuit for centuries, and are still a major part of the culture and diet for many. A single whale, hunted during the summer months, can provide food for several families over the course of a winter.

Traditionally, it was difficult to find wood for fire on the Arctic tundra, so whale meat was consumed raw or frozen – a practice that continues today.

A Northwest Territories man who has been part of the traditional hunt for decades said he's always cooked his beluga meat to prevent the spread of parasites.

But the hunter, who asked not to be named because of his employment in the territorial government, said the announcement wouldn't change the way people harvest and consume beluga.

"Unless somebody goes blind from eating this meat, it's not going to change it one bit," he said. "It's hard to educate the older people. They're set in their ways, that's the way they were taught, and they don't want to change."

"Even my father, he says: 'we're not cooking it.' I say, 'yeah, we are.' I set aside some muktuk (frozen whale blubber) and say 'that's yours. You want to eat it raw, you go ahead. We like it cooked.' It kills parasites, we know it does.

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"But my father, he's 77, and just set in his ways, and that's the way he wants it done. I'm sure he's fine with that."

Grigg and Raverty also identified another strain of the parasite in grey seals, walruses, and polar bears.

"Ice is a major eco-barrier for pathogens," Grigg explained in a news release. "What we're seeing with the big thaw is the liberation of pathogens gaining access to vulnerable new hosts and wreaking havoc."

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