Retreating sea ice blamed for crowded shores

Kyle Hopkins
Point Lay Fire Chief Bill Tracey photographed walruses hauling out near Point Lay early this month, the third time in four years they've been spotted.
Photo by BILL TRACEY
A walrus (far right) wears a satellite tag that researchers will use to follow the migration of walruses as they search for sea ice. The last three out of four years, they have been spotted in large numbers on the shores of northwest Alaska.
U.S. Geological Survey
Walruses haul out on ice floes in the Chukchi Sea in summer.
U.S. Geological Survey
A female walrus nuzzles her calf on an ice floe in the Chukchi Sea.
U.S. Geological Survey

In one small North Slope village, the winds of climate change smell like walrus.

"Oooohh, man," said Point Lay tribal administrator Sophie Henry, describing the odor that wafts into town when a sea breeze hits thousands of blubbery, barking walruses camping nearby. "Rotten. It stinks."

Ten times worse than a dog yard, she said. Think pig farm with nearly one-ton pigs.

On Saturday, the animals were about a mile from the town, said Point Lay Fire Chief Bill Tracey. The swarm is massive, estimated at anywhere from several thousand walruses to as many as 20,000 congregating there since late August.

It's the third time in four years that herds of walruses have been spotted on northwest Alaska shores. In that time, the Point Lay haul-out appears to be the largest -- a writhing, groaning example of a phenomenon scientists blame on rising temperatures and melting sea ice.

Normally the animals would be at sea, riding floating ice floes that span the shallow continental shelf between Russia and Alaska, say federal researchers in Anchorage.

On the ocean they live a simple routine. Flop off the ice, dive for clams, worms or other invertebrates. Repeat.

But this year, as in other recent summers, the ice retreated farther north than usual. The Pacific walruses had a choice: Follow the ice into deeper waters outside their feeding habitat, or bolt for land.

That's how you end up with a sea of walruses outside your village.

Anticipating further sea ice decline in the coming years, researchers in Alaska are hoping to use the immense walrus grouping outside Point Lay to learn what the potential change in behavior means for the health of the animals and, in particular, the ability of walrus calves to survive.

"Our suspicion is that when they're on shore, that they're going to have to spend more time foraging than if they're out on the sea ice," said Chad Jay, a USGS walrus researcher in Anchorage.

When on land, walruses -- ever social -- tend to gather in bigger groups, risking deadly stampedes. No stampedes have been observed in Point Lay this year, and it's unclear how many of the walruses there have died. At least some have.

Already, Point Lay resident Willard Neakok has started measuring and examining the dead animals for the state Department of Fish and Game, he said.

Neakok said he and other villagers are staying away from the main herd to avoid spooking the walruses, but he had measured seven carcasses as of last week. Most looked like they'd been trampled to death, he said.

A member of the Eskimo Walrus Commission, which works with agencies to manage the animals, Neakok said he usually knows when hunters have taken a walrus in the village, either from word-of-mouth or seeing the head sitting outside someone's home.

As of last week he said hunters had killed maybe two or three of the walruses -- enough to last the subsistence community of 230 people all year, he said.

As a meal the animals are oily and spongy close to the skin, with meat that tastes a little like fishy beef, he said. "You get a little salt on there, you know, it's almost hard to stop."

ESTIMATED AT 10,000

As of Friday, no one knew exactly how many walruses are in the immense crowd. Widely reported estimates of 10,000 to 20,000 or more are guesses.

Jay, the USGS ecologist, said more than 10,000 walruses was likely a safe estimate, though the numbers resting on the beach vary by day and appeared to have dipped last week.

Researchers are now using aerial photos, combined with GPS mapping of the land area covered by the teeming herd, to come up with more precise numbers.

The Point Lay episode is directly related to global climate change as sea ice levels drop, said Rosa Meehan, chief of the Wildlife Service's Marine Mammal Program in Alaska.

Arctic sea ice this year receded to the third-lowest level since satellite tracking began in 1979, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado. Tracking by the U.S. Geological Survey shows the Pacific walruses wandering toward Point Lay in August and September as ice disappeared off Alaska's coast.

Meehan said aerial surveys show no other large groups of walruses hauled out on the shores of northwest Alaska this summer, though Anchorage USGS zoologist Dan Monson said smaller numbers have been seen gathered along the Chukchi Sea coast from Point Lay south to Cape Lisburne.

It's not uncommon for Pacific walruses to haul out on shore. Thousands of males have long gathered on the rocky beaches in Bristol Bay, most famously at Round Island. More recently, massive groups have collected on the Russian side of the Chukchi Sea, Jay said.

Walrus herds began showing up early in Alaska's northern coast by 2007.

Things changed in 2008, when a tongue of sea ice remained long enough to allow the animals to stay in the Chukchi Sea until the ice reformed, Jay said.

But last year the walruses returned to land.

Some were seen in Point Lay. A thousand or more hauled out about 50 miles to the north at Icy Cape, Jay said. There, researchers counted the carcasses of more than 100 walruses that were likely killed in stampedes.

Anticipating another walrus migration to shore in 2010, USGS researchers began tagging the animals in June, using a ship to reach walruses while they were still hauled out on ice in the southern Chukchi Sea.

For researchers, the job is a bizarre one.

Scientists crawl on their bellies downwind of the walruses -- as smelly as they are, they can also smell humans coming -- and use crossbows to shoot radio transmitters between the animals' shoulder blades.

The researchers practice their marksmanship in a Ship Creek warehouse before tagging missions, Jay said.

'THERE'S NO ICE FOR THEM'

By late August, Point Lay residents began reporting a large mass of walruses collecting on the barrier island that buffers the village from the Chukchi Sea.

Smaller groups had hauled out near the village before, but this time the numbers were vast. Villagers could see them across the lagoon. Each morning, before the four-wheelers began motoring along unpaved roads, you could hear the animals barking from town, said Henry, the tribal administrator.

"We're not allowing any human activity out there," Henry said. "There's no ice for them to go to, so we're allowing them to stay put as long as they'd like without anybody bothering them."

At one point the walruses lumbered north, farther from the village, after a polar bear was seen approaching the group, said Jason Herreman, a North Slope Borough wildlife biologist. No one saw the bear kill any walruses, he said.

Polar bear sightings aren't unheard of in the village, said Tracey, the fire chief who has lived in Point Lay for 37 years. "We normally get them year round, not in big numbers of course. But there's always that one or two, walking the beaches, looking for food."

What is unusual, residents said, are the summer temperatures. Ten years ago, you'd be snowmachining in September, Neakok said. Instead, Tracey said he's been able to walk around in a T-shirt.

USGS researchers came to tag another 20 walruses in early September and hired a Homer photographer Daniel Zatz to shoot aerial video of the herd from a helicopter.

Zatz says he flew about 4,000 feet above the ground, creating video with the same kind of high-definition camera system used to shoot the BBC's "Planet Earth" television series.

Researchers will now use the images to estimate the number of walruses and determine the ratio of cows to calves -- an effort that could allow them to determine whether this new haul-out behavior is causing more calves to die than usual.

Among the concerns: If massive numbers of walrus return to the same shoreline each year, they're more likely to deplete nearby food sources and could have to travel even farther in the future.

Calves also may become separated from their mothers during the commute from shore to feeding grounds. "Nobody really watches out for these little guys, except for the mom," Monson said.

MEDIA ATTENTION

Like Alaska villages ravaged by erosion, the global warming story made Point Lay famous.

Henry, the 28-year-old tribal administrator, was chosen to act as village spokeswoman and manage the crush of media attention that arrived soon after the walruses.

This month the "Today Show" came to the town where walruses nearby outnumbered people by as much as 85-to-1. That's just part of it. There were nonstop calls and e-mails. Filmmakers wondered about shooting a documentary.

"It's kind of overwhelming," said Henry who's looking forward to the walruses leaving.

Residents and visitors are reporting smaller numbers lately, though it's hard to gauge how many animals are really using the beach at any given time.

Fish and Wildlife Service biologist John Trent flew by the seaward side of the barrier island Sept. 14, seeing maybe 3,000 to 5,000 walruses spanning a quarter mile.

On Friday thousands of walruses were still using the beach, and the herd could be seen with the naked eye directly across the lagoon from Point Lay, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Monson, the USGS zoologist, said the walruses could leave Point Lay by the end of the month, depending on ice conditions and their ability to find food. In previous years, they headed south along the Chukchi Sea coast to Cape Lisburne before heading west to Russia, where they spend the fall and early winter along the northern Chukotka coast.

As for what happens next, Monson said climate models suggest ice will disappear from walrus feeding areas earlier in the summer over the next several decades, meaning haul outs like the one in Point Lay this summer may grow longer and longer. While the Fish and Wildlife Service has been considering a petition to list the Pacific walrus as a threatened or endangered species because of habitat loss, Monson said lessons researchers learn about from the summer haul out won't play a role in that determination.

"My guess would be that we won't really have that in time for that type of decision," he said.

Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or e-mail khopkins@adn.com.

Video: Thousands of walrus hauled out at Point Lay
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Melting sea ice forces walruses onto Northwest Alaska beaches
By KYLE HOPKINS
khopkins@adn.com
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