Pacific walruses have begun to haul out of the Chukchi Sea near Point Lay, prompting those traveling by air and boat to take precautionary measures to avoid disturbing the animals.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the haulout Aug. 5, saying the walruses were likely to soon occupy beaches near Cape Lisburne through October.
Walruses traditionally rest on sea ice, which provides protection from human disturbances and predators as well as easy access to water for feeding. But due to melting sea ice along the Chukchi Sea coast, walruses have begun to haul out on land. The lack of quick water access makes the walruses more skittish and likely to stampede when provoked by human disturbances, according the Fish and Wildlife Service.
With the mass numbers of walruses that haul out together, which have reached up to 50,000, stampedes can lead to walruses being trampled, particularly the young. And the haulout in Point Lay has predominately female and young walruses, according to Fish and Wildlife Service spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros.
"When the animals spook and (stampede) into the water, young animals are often trampled and killed in the process," she wrote in an email. "Trampling deaths associated with haulout disturbance can be a significant source of natural mortality for walruses."
The Eskimo Walrus Commission, which represents 19 Alaska coastal walrus hunting communities including Point Lay, emphasized the importance of protecting the Pacific walrus population since it is a vital resource for Alaskan Native communities.
"We just want to ensure that marine mammal resources, like walrus, are available for our communities and our future generations because many of communities rely on resources found in marine waters," said the commission's director Vera Metcalf.
The 2-ton animals were spotted onshore by Point Lay residents July 29, the earliest on record, according to Medeiros. The previous record was set last year with the haulout beginning just a day later on July 30.
Walruses began hauling out in significant numbers near Point Lay in 2007 and have done so every year since except in 2008 and 2012, Medeiros wrote. The beginning of the haulout coincided with the first satellite record of melting sea ice off of the shallow continental shelf waters.
Ice along the Chukchi Sea was 81% of its average levels in June, according to the University of Alaska's International Arctic Research Center. Last year, July's sea ice extent was less than half of its average, making it the lowest on record.
Point Lay residents have previously found dead walruses onshore after air and boat activity in the area scared the animals, the release said. The Fish and Wildlife Service created guidelines in conjunction with the village of Point Lay and the Federal Aviation Administration for mariners and pilots to prevent disturbing the walruses.
These guidelines include minimum altitudes and distances so they will not be seen or heard while traveling through the area. Though the service does not know the exact year the guidelines were first created, there has been some form of guidance in place for about 20 years, Medeiros wrote.
Those who do not follow the distance guidelines can be subject to fines from the Fish and Wildlife Service for violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In 2017, two pilots were fined $3,000 in citations for disturbing walruses in Point Lay, according to the service’s release.
The service and Point Lay have worked to alert the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, air carriers and shipping companies about this year’s walruses. Point Lay, with its reliance on and great respect for walruses, has taken a lead role in protecting them from human disturbances, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
“The residents of Point Lay depend on foods collected from the land and sea and have a deep respect for and spiritual connection to the Earth and the animals they depend on,” the agency said.
Metcalf said she commends Point Lay for their work protecting the walruses while they are hauling out.
"We're so dependent on marine mammal resources because without these resources, we're even more vulnerable to (the) many changes that are occurring," Metcalf said. "It really makes a world of difference when you have communities that are doing their part to protect the environment and resources like walrus."
For more information and details about the air and water travel advisories, visit www.fws.gov/alaska/.
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