Walruses are tusked and hulking and, as their limbless bodies suggest, not particularly graceful runners. They’re also no good at dealing with walrus traffic jams. So when thousands of walruses on a beach decide to make a mad dash for the ocean, it’s as harrowing as holiday shoppers stampeding department stores when doors open on Black Friday. Adult walruses can be fatally injured, and babies get crushed to death.
One thing that can startle walruses into such a stampede is the sound of airplanes or helicopters. So the Federal Aviation Administration has issued a new warning to pilots in Alaska to stay well away from beaches where Pacific walruses hang out in the summer, warning not only that a walrus crush can kill the animals or nearby people, but also that “harassing” walruses — which might include flying too close to them — is a violation of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Alaska pilots need this kind of reminder because walrus beach parties are actually a pretty new trend, and for a pretty depressing reason. The animals have always come to the Chukchi Sea between Alaska and Russia during the summer, where there’s a shallow shelf that’s prime territory for foraging the clams, snails and sea cucumbers that they use to maintain their 2,000-plus-pound bodies. In between meals, they’d slide up in small groups onto sea ice to take naps and nurse their pups.
But because global warming is causing Arctic sea ice to melt at record rates, there are fewer walrus rest stops, and so for seven of the past nine years, thousands of the animals have been congregating — or “hauling out,” as it is known — on the shorelines of both sides of the sea instead. Last year, an estimated 35,000 female and baby walruses hauled out near the Alaska Native Village of Point Lay. (One environmentalist’s idea of putting rafts in the sea for walrus use didn’t get anywhere.)
Here’s what that sort of walrus congregation looks like:
Already this year, about 3,000 male walruses, which haul out all year round, are gathered in a new spot near Cape Greig, according to the Alaska Dispatch. Jim MacCracken, a biologist who is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s walrus expert in Alaska, said the females and calves usually haul out by early August, but might do so earlier this year because the ice appears to be melting more quickly.
Biologists say this isn’t good for a few reasons. For one, it’s farther from the walruses’ food source, so there’s concern that they have to expend a lot more energy to stay fed, and also that they’ll start feeding more on the fish that Alaskan villagers depend on. Also, the beach provides easier access for predators such as polar bears.
And then there are those stampedes, which are more likely to be fatal because of the mass of a walrus haulout. In 2014, according to a U.S. Geological Service news release last year that warned people to steer clear of walrus haulouts, about 60 pups were killed “because of the sheer number of animals gathered together.”
Flights over the beaches — which carry provisions to remote villages, as well as tourists and hunters — are of particular concern, the USGS said, noting that shore cliffs can amplify their noise. This year, the FAA has instructed airplane pilots to stay at least 2,000 feet above ground and at least half a mile away from walrus haulouts; helicopters are advised to stay more than 3,000 feet up and a mile away. “Walruses are sensitive to changes in engine noise,” an FAA map for pilots reads. “Avoid unnecessary circling or turning while in the area of a haulout.”
When on ice floes, haulouts are small enough that walruses “just kind of flop off into the water” when they want or need to, MacCracken said. “And the chances of animals hurting other animals is a lot less than when they’re on land.”
But a walrus stampede on the beach “is kind of like if you drop a pebble in a pond. There’s kind of a wave, where one animal in a herd gets disturbed and that gets his buddy going, and they kind of all get moving and headed toward the water,” MacCracken said. “They start running over the backs of each other and pushing each other along. They’re pretty big animals and once they get going, that’s a lot of energy moving. And smaller ones in the way can get crushed or mortally injured.”
Native Alaskans hunt walruses, so keeping their population stable is “a food security issue,” Eskimo Walrus Commission program director Vera Metcalf told KTUU.
Melting sea ice is making that harder. No one knows exactly how many Pacific walruses there are, but estimates hover around 200,000. In 2011, Fish and Wildlife said federal protection for walruses under the Endangered Species Act was “warranted,” in part due to loss of sea ice, but it said it wouldn’t list it because other species were higher priorities. The agency is now under court order to decide whether to recommend listing by September 2017.