While the prospect of a trip to see thousands of walruses charging Alaska's northwest coastline in Point Lay may sound exciting, federal officials are reiterating that people who do visit could end up breaking the law.
In order to get close enough, photographers and tourists have to use boats or planes. And the beaching walruses, which may already be distressed, are easily spooked and vulnerable to deadly stampedes. So if locals, who have expressed they are frustrated by the attention, or anybody else reports that the walruses are being harassed, federal agents will investigate whether there was a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
"Harassment basically means any act that has the potential to injure a marine mammal or the potential to disturb them," said Mac Whisler, resident agent in charge for U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
Any person found guilty of violating the protection act can be charged with a maximum penalty of $100,000 and up to a year in jail, Whisler said, though the maximums are rarely imposed. Fish and Wildlife is already investigating whether one environmental photographer broke the law. He used a light aircraft to take aerial pictures last weekend, and people outside the federal agency made complaints.
For nearly a decade, thousands of walruses have swum to the beach at Point Lay, likely because the floating ice they would usually rest on has melted. Last year was considered to be one of the biggest gatherings of marine mammals in the region, with approximately 35,000 of them ashore. Fish and Wildlife officials estimated on Friday there could be about 6,000 of them at Point Lay now and perhaps more to come.