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What Arctic ice scarcity means for walruses of Alaska

Ben Anderson
Dan Monson on the beach with tagged walrus (USGS photo).
Photo by Point Lay Fire Chief Bill Tracey Sr.
Tony Fischbach on the beach with tagged walrus near Pont Lay, Alaska (USGS photo).
Cow with her yearling calf on the beach near Pont Lay, Alaska (USGS photo).
USGS photo
Walrus resting in the evening sun (USGS photo).
USGS photo
Walrus calf looking out from the group at the beach in Northwest Alaska.
USGS photo
Walrus high on the barrier Island beaches (USGS photo).
USGS photo

As they have for the past few years in what’s become a fall tradition in Northwest Alaska, walrus have begun moving toward shore near the community of Point Lay. Though no more than a small number have arrived so far, if this haul-out resembles others since 2009, there could soon be thousands of walrus populating the Chukchi Sea shoreline.

The U.S. Geological Survey has dispatched biologists to Point Lay to begin observing the animals, which are coming in a little later than usual thanks to a few fortunate ice floes that they were able to inhabit until earlier this month. One such floe, measuring 30-by-12 miles, delayed Royal Dutch Shell’s Arctic offshore oil drilling operations as it floated by.

But USGS animation showing the location of walruses previously tagged by GPS trackers has indicated a movement toward shore in the last week or so. In particular, they seem to prefer the area just north of Point Lay, a community of about 200 people southwest of Barrow.

According to Julius Rexford, council president for the Native Village of Point Lay, the walruses have just begun arriving near shore, and they weren’t present in the usual number -- at least not yet. He said they were close enough, though, that Point Lay residents could hear their bellows and growls.  

Chad Jay, a biologist with the USGS, said that the vocalizations don’t necessarily mean that the walrus have made the leap to shore yet, but it could happen at any moment.

“Residents of Point Lay claim to be hearing walruses and seeing them in the water,” Jay said, “but we haven’t yet seen evidence of them actually coming on shore. That still doesn’t mean there aren’t any walruses in the surf, though.”

Usually, a walrus will get near the shore, looking for other walruses, using a safety-in-numbers strategy to avoid predators while on land.

“No one wants to be the first one out of the water,” Jay said.

Karen Oakley, a supervisory biologist with the USGS, said that the haul-outs have come in the last six years or so as the sea ice has receded farther north than in previous years. 

"When the sea ice retreats to the north of the continental shelf, the walrus lose sea ice as a platform for resting between their foraging dives to the sea floor," Oakley wrote in an email. "USGS has not observed walruses following the ice edge north of the shelf. Once the ice over the shelf is gone, the walruses have moved to onshore haulouts."

Oakley said that walruses usually feed on clams, worms, and other foods found on the sea floor.

“Basically, in the last six years, there’s been a new pattern, or a new normal for them,” Oakley said, “where the sea ice has completely melted away from the Chukchi Sea shelf, and what we’ve seen is that they don’t stay with the ice when it goes way, way north.”

Once the walruses make their way to shore, it’s important they not be spooked. Oakley said that the community had taken it upon themselves to stem the tide of onlookers who appeared to observe the walruses the first year they hauled out near Point Lay.

“The community there really adopted that attitude of ‘we are protecting this huge aggregation of walruses on shore,’” Oakley said. “They helped make this whole thing not a complete mess.”

Curious pilots are also instructed to stay clear of the area, as a plane passing overhead could cause a stampede similar to one that occurred in 2009. In that incident about 100 animals died, mostly younger walruses trampled by their adult counterparts, which can grow to weigh thousands of pounds.

Their size also makes them a formidable quarry for subsistence hunters, though the presence of so many walruses so close to the community doesn’t mean that the villagers are taking advantage of the circumstances.

According to Rexford, only one walrus was taken last year, a female that they managed to call away from the main herd. But taking walruses on land would also be a new normal for hunters.

“We would normally take them in June, out on the ice, but we haven’t taken walrus on ice in years,” Rexford said. “Because the ice leaves so suddenly and doesn’t come back until much later.”

He said that there’s an automatic downside to taking a walrus on land.

“I’d rather take them on ice than on the beach,” he said. “When you butcher them on the beach, you get a lot of sand and rocks in the meat.”

For now, biologists and residents will wait to see if the new normal -- a tightly-packed herd of walruses crowding the beach near the community -- happens again this year.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com