Sea-Ice Melt Imperils Walruses, and Economy Based on Them

As sea ice warms more quickly, the window for Alaskans to hunt for walruses has narrowed from two months a year to three weeks.
As sea ice warms more quickly, the window for Alaskans to hunt for walruses has narrowed from two months a year to three weeks. (By Paul Nicklen -- National Geographic)
By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 29, 2008

NOME, Alaska -- Hubert Kokuluk squints with his one good eye to examine the tiny polar bear he has just carved from a fragment of walrus tusk. He isn't happy with the yellowish hue, but good ivory is hard to come by these days, since quickly melting sea ice has made it extremely difficult for his Inupiaq Eskimo community to carry out the traditional annual spring walrus hunt.

Though walruses are federally protected, Alaska Natives have subsistence rights to hunt them and rely on the meat, skin, intestines and tusks -- for food, clothing and boat coverings, and to carve the ivory jewelry and souvenirs that are a signficant source of income.

Over the past few decades, Kokuluk and the other residents of King Island, a steep rocky knoll poking out of the Bering Sea, have left the island for a more hospitable existence in Nome. They return to the waters of King Island each spring to hunt walruses, which are moving north as the sea ice they depend on melts and recedes.

But in the past few years their economic circumstances have worsened. A warming climate melts the sea ice more rapidly, thinning the walrus herds and forcing native hunters to travel greater distances to track their prey.

As the ice has melted, the window of time in which the hunters can pursue the walrus is much shorter -- about three weeks, compared with two months in better years. This past year, the King Islanders of Nome did not get a single walrus, meaning they will have to do without walrus meat this winter and will have to buy ivory to carve, for about $50 a pound.

"This is the only way we make our living -- things are getting tougher and tougher," Kokuluk said. "I don't know what we'll do if we don't hunt walrus."

The lack of walruses exacerbates the financial crunch Alaska Natives in isolated villages and towns are already feeling from rising energy prices.

Most live a hybrid of traditional and modern lifestyles, depending on heating oil to warm their homes and gasoline to power boats and snowmobiles. Gas can be more than $8 a gallon in remote areas, and prices for food, clothing and other goods have risen sharply because of the cost of transport.

"Hubert needs to finish those carvings today and sell them today, and only then can he go to the grocery store," said Marilyn Koezuna-Irelan, president of the Nome Native Arts Center. It is slated to open later this year and will give carvers a venue to sell their work without going through middlemen, who take a substantial cut.

The Arctic has always been subject to extreme climactic shifts, but polar scientists and Native observers say the earlier melting of sea ice has been a notable trend over the past decade. In 2007, summer sea ice was at record low levels. This past winter and summer were colder than usual in Alaska, but sea ice still melted quickly.

"This winter, the maximum ice cover in the Bering Sea was actually above normal, but that doesn't mean it doesn't retreat rapidly in summer," said Hajo Eicken, a University of Alaska at Fairbanks geophysics professor involved in a recently launched international effort to catalogue the effects of sea ice changes on users, including Native communities.

Floating chunks of ice and high winds can make traveling in the 16-foot aluminum boats they use for hunting very dangerous. A shorter potential hunting period also forces Natives to take more risks with the weather.

Though drops in walrus population haven't been documented, scientists and Natives are afraid the ripple effects of climate change could thin walrus numbers.

Walrus need to rest on sea ice no more than 400 feet above the ocean floor so they can dive down to eat shellfish and plants. But sea ice is retreating so far north that the waters are too deep for walrus to feed. This forces them to squeeze onto land, and last summer about 4,000 young walruses were trampled to death by males in the crowded conditions.

"On land, they are really vulnerable to predators and to being trampled by big males; when a human or polar bear shows up, they panic and stampede," said Shaye Wolf, a staff biologist for the Center for Biological Diversity, which is petitioning for an Endangered Species Act listing for the walrus.

Hunter Sylvester Ayek said that 25 years ago, walruses could be hunted off King Island in July; now they are gone by May. He is considering leaving a boat at King Island this fall, then taking a helicopter there in the spring to get a head start on hunting.

"That's the only way we'll be able to get the walrus next year," he said.

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