The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service confirmed to the Post Wednesday evening that a mass of walruses had “hauled out,” or gathered on shore, near the remote community of Point Lay. The service did not estimate the number or provide images. But photojournalist Gary Braasch has posted dramatic photographs, taken during an Aug. 23 flyover, of what appear to be at least several thousand walruses crowding onto a barrier island. (The photograph shown here was taken during last September’s haul-out.)
Government radio tracking of the walruses also show a number of tagged animals clustered at Point Lay.
This is the seventh time in a decade that walruses have been driven out of the Chukchi Sea by warming waters, and past haul-outs have numbered in the tens of thousands. This is one of the earliest haul-outs on record; most of the previous ones have occurred in September.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has been very concerned about the animals’ safety. Walrus populations are easily frightened on shore, and if something spooks them they may stampede into the water, often crushing any babies or smaller adults in their path. Past stampedes have caused thousands of fatalities. To prevent stress on the animals, the Service has issued a press release requesting that people — and specifically the media — keep away from the area while the walruses are hauled out.
In the past, the Service has worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to issue notices to pilots whose flights might disturb the walruses, and it’s possible that the FAA may issue certain flight restrictions while the animals remain in the area. In its most recent statement, the Service says it is “working to notify airlines and air charter operators in [nearby villages of] Kotzebue and Barrow of the possible presence of walrus at Point Lay and request that they do not overfly or fly within the vicinity of the haul-out.” The statement also contains a reminder that harassing walruses, including “operating an aircraft in a manner which results in harassing or disturbing walruses,” is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
President Obama will arrive in Anchorage Monday to begin a three-day visit focusing on climate change and its effects in the Arctic, which include melting glaciers and sea ice, thawing permafrost, sea-level rise and their corresponding threats to people and wildlife. Alaska media have reported that one of the other stops on his trip will be Kotzebue — a village about 200 miles south of Point Lay, where the walruses are gathered on shore.
We wrote two weeks ago that scientists expected another haul-out could be imminent. Pacific walruses usually find a resting place on floating sea ice in the Chukchi Sea — part of the Arctic Ocean between the Russian and Alaskan shores — when they aren’t diving for shellfish and other bottom-dwelling sea animals in the open water. In the summer, as sea ice melts and retreats north, many of them wait out the season by clustering in an area called the Hanna Shoal, a shallow-water region of the Chukchi sea where sea ice used to be abundant all year round.
But in recent weeks, the National Weather Service began to warn that Chukchi sea ice — even the Hanna Shoal region — was dwindling. By last Wednesday, all the ice was finally gone and the walruses started to scatter. Now with nowhere else to rest, it looks as though they’ll likely be stuck on shore until sea ice begins to refreeze in October. Braasch estimates from his photos that at least a few thousand were hauled out as of the 23rd. And more may still be milling offshore, preparing to join their kin on the beach.
Rising temperatures in the Arctic have been causing more sea ice to melt each year. And every summer since 2007, except 2008 and 2012, the ice has dwindled enough to force walruses to haul out on either the Alaskan or the Russian coastline.
This is a big concern for biologists because hauling out can cause a variety of problems for walrus populations. It’s not just the risk of stampede. Food isn’t as accessible or abundant from the shore. Some walruses swim dozens of miles back and forth from the coastline to deeper waters in order to feed. But the majority of them stick around the shoreline, causing some scientists to worry that they could eventually use up all the food resources around them.
The Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to release more details in a teleconference in the coming days. In the meantime, the walruses’ presence on the shore serves as a grim reminder of the growing effects of climate change in the Arctic, which — from melting ice to threatened wildlife — grow more apparent and far-reaching every year.