Could artificial rafts replace missing sea ice for hauled-out walrus? Feds say no for now

Federal wildlife officials have rejected a plan floated by an Alaska environmental activist to deploy recycled fuel barges as artificial ocean haulouts in an effort to aid walruses affected by diminished Arctic sea ice.

In recent years, thousands of Pacific walruses have hauled out on Chukchi Sea beaches along Alaska's northwestern coast. Some 35,000 were spotted near the village of Point Lay this month.

Scientists say the coastal haulouts are related to diminishing sea ice cover. In the past, the animals would haul out on sea ice near prime food sources, such as Hanna Shoal, but are increasingly unable to do so as late summer sea ice retreated to near-record lows in recent years.

The coastal haulouts are far from food sources. Last year a government scientist estimated that walruses would need to swim 120 to 150 miles to reach Hanna Shoal from the beaches near Point Lay. Researchers worry the additional energy walruses expend in traversing such distances could prove detrimental.

This summer, former University of Alaska professor and environmental activist Rick Steiner proposed a pilot project to test the effects of anchoring temporary artificial rafts for walruses at Hanna Shoal beginning in 2016. His plan was to "design/retrofit at least one large barge (e.g. a cleaned fuel barge), with a substantial weather bow, retrofit it with appropriate surfacing material, ballast it with sea water, anchor it at Hanna Shoal from July – Oct. 2016, to test the feasibility of the concept."

[Arctic sea ice reaches 4th-lowest extent on record]

"I realize such novel ideas are, well, novel," he wrote in a July email to Alaska-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials. "But it seems time that we began testing some of these potential mitigation concepts, to see if further expansion in the future would help mitigate the devastating impacts of climate change in Arctic Ocean ecosystems."


On Monday, officials responded, denying his request.

In a letter, provided to Alaska Dispatch News by Steiner, Fish and Wildlife Alaska Regional Director Geoffrey L. Haskett said U.S. Geological Survey researchers were still working to understand whether the longer swims might be harmful to walrus, with research expected to be concluded next year. In the meantime, his agency was focused on minimizing disturbances at coastal haulouts.

Since sand dollars are the only sustenance for walruses at Point Lay, some of them are making trips to Hanna Shoal to feast on the snails and plants that are abundant there. But it's unclear how that's affecting their quality of life.

"Currently, there is no evidence that feeding trips from coastal haulouts are resulting in an energy deficit based on observations of animal conditions," wrote Haskett.

While the agency's letter didn't outright dismiss the possibility of using rafts in the future, it did raise doubts, including about the logistics of providing enough artificial raft space to accommodate significant numbers of walrus, and the difficulty of deploying and retrieving the rafts each season.

"Although the construction, deployment, anchoring, and retrieval of a small number of rafts is technically feasible, the scale of an effective program, the logistics, permitting, aesthetics, and public relations challenges are immense and would require a well-funded and coordinated effort," Haskett wrote.

Steiner said he'll explore private funding of the idea.

"Open water season is going to get longer earlier in the summer and lasting later in the fall," he said. "We need to at least try to give them a hand to survive this warming, particularly as we are the primary cause for their current plight."