Alaska News

Point Lay prepares for possible walrus haulout

In case thousands of walruses haul out again this year on the shores of Point Lay, the village is taking a proactive step to ensure that they are protected from the glare of international media attention.

In a release this week from various wildlife agencies in conjunction with the Native Village of Point Lay, the town asked that media keep their distance.

"The walrus haulout event receives worldwide attention and many media people contact our tribal government asking to come and film the walruses. The Native Village of Point Lay does not have the capacity to answer media requests, and we respectfully ask members of the media, tourists and other organizations to refrain from visiting our community to film the animals or sightsee," said Leo Ferreira III, Point Lay Tribal Council president, in a statement. "We do not believe that these sorts of visits are in the best interest of the walruses and they do not align with the haul-out protection role we have developed and measures we set in place to prevent disturbances."

Last fall, some 35,000 walruses gathered near Point Lay. Biologists had been tracking the event for years, attributing it to climate-induced warming that has diminished the summer sea ice near shore. Instead of resting on the sea ice between feedings, the walruses come to shore.

The haulouts provide necessary resting ground, but there are problems, scientists studying the animals say. So many animals in close quarters can facilitate the spread of disease. Even more disturbing, stampedes can cause walruses to be injured or killed. The stampedes can be triggered by predators, such as bears, or by human activity.

That's where the "do not disturb" sign comes in.

Last year, an estimated 60 young walruses were killed because of the sheer number of animals gathered together, scientists said.

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"The Native Village of Point Lay has taken a proactive role in the stewardship of walrus haulouts near our community," Ferreira said. "We have reduced or redirected our resident hunters from coming near the haulout when occupied by large numbers. Our community members are involved in the walrus satellite tagging project, haulout monitoring and carcass surveys, and camera towers. In past years we have contacted local airlines to reroute flights in and out of our community."

Point Lay says aircraft flights are one of the biggest concerns, and scientists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are working with the Federal Aviation Administration to issue notices and guidelines to pilots. If a large haulout begins to develop, the FAA may be asked to issue a temporary flight restriction in the area.

"When conducting our aerial surveys in the northeastern Chukchi Sea, we stay over water both for passing and circling. If we cannot maintain appropriate altitude due to weather, then we increase our lateral distance by up to five nautical miles," said Megan Ferguson, lead NOAA Fisheries scientist for the annual Aerial Survey of Arctic Marine Mammals, a project funded and co-managed by the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. "We also exercise great care near any cliffs because the topography may amplify noise from the plane."

Agencies involved said they will work with media to provide timely information as the situation develops, but ask that media keep their distance if a haulout occurs this year.

"We can prevent walrus disturbance and many trampling deaths," Ferreira said, "but everyone needs to listen and pay attention to help the walrus."

This story first appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.

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