Tracking Pacific Walrus: Expedition to the Shrinking Chukchi Sea Ice (video)

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This twelve minute video from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) starts with the biologists describing some of the many endearing qualities of walruses,  explaining how important sea ice is to the animals and why the decline of that ice is so disruptive and threatening -- not just to the walruses but for the people of the region.  The second half of the video shows how USGS biologists use satellite radio tags to track the movement and behavior of the walruses. "The information identifies areas of special importance to walruses during sparse summer sea ice and as human presence increases in the region from oil drilling and activities such as shipping and tourism now possible with less ice," says the USGS. In addition to the video, we provide a transcript.

The video was released last week along with a new article on Walrus areas of use in the Chukchi Sea during sparse sea ice cover by Jay V. Chadwick and Anthony S. Fischbach (USGS) and Anatoly A. Kochnev (Pacific Research Fisheries Center, Chukotka Branch, Russia),  published in Marine Ecology Progress Series (MEPS Vol. 468. Online publication date: November 14, 2012).  "With increasing sea ice loss," the authors conclude, "it is likely that walruses will increase their use of coastal haul-outs and nearshore foraging areas, with consequences to the population that are yet to be understood."  They add that the "[w]alruses most vulnerable to altered activity patterns are likely to be lactating females and the young." 

As declining sea ice takes its toll on the walruses, it also opens their foraging area to human activity.  "Areas of walrus foraging in June to September ... overlap with the US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management oil and gas lease blocks within the Chukchi Sea Oil and Gas Lease Sale 193," the authors say.  "As the duration of ice-free periods in the Chukchi Sea increases in the future, other activities in the Chukchi Sea, such as ship and air traffic ... are also likely to overlap walrus use areas in some months."

Here is the transcript for the video:

Narrator:  What’s endearing to be said about a 4,000 pound mammal with huge canine tusks? Hear the scientists who work with them. 

Tony Fischbach: Walruses love to be next to each other.

Sarah Sonsthagen: They’re so gregarious.

Tony Fischcbach: They’re always checking in with each other, they kind of snuggle on top of each other.

Chad Jay: They tend to kind of Posey up and have these little bluff charges then at the last minute dive under the water.

Tony Fischbach: As soon as they’re concerned about something their first response is to turn to their companions on the ice pan and sort of sniff them and nudge them, it’s almost as if they’re saying, “Did you notice something?”

Sarah Sonsthagen: The pups are like 150 lbs. when they’re born.

Tony Fischbach: When you see them swimming the calves will be holding on tight to the mothers back. Sarah Sonsthagen: It’s just neat to see something so big, so caring. Narrator: Today, the Pacific walrus is facing new challenges. This is walrus territory – the Chukchi Sea, part of the cold remote Arctic.  This vast shallow sea stretches from the  shores of northern Alaska across to Russia.  It's the summer range  for Pacific walrus females  and their young.  Over the last 30 years  the Chukchi Sea has experienced a dramatic loss of sea ice due to climate change. Since 2007, this summer ice retreat has accelerated taking the ice edge into much deeper water. This has created a new situation for the Pacific walrus. 

Tony Fischbach: In 2007 we observed it, uh we dropped our jaws it really wasn’t something we expected to see so soon. This has forced walruses to come to shore to rest, 40,000 at a time or something that really hadn’t been seen before in the United States.

Narrator: Why does this matter to the walruses?

Chad Jay: They eat things that live on the bottom. Their main pray item is clams, but they will take a wide variety of organisms on the sea floor. Very often marine worms and large snails and other things. They dive to the bottom and them kind of root around in the sediment with their muzzle and the whiskers, the vibrice on their muzzle are very sensitive and tactile.  And they kind of use those almost as fingers to sweep the bottom.

Narrator:  Most of the world’s ocean is 10,000 feet deep. Beneath the Chukchi Sea is an immense continental shelf that is only 150 feet deep. This vast shallow sea is extremely rich in the clams and worms so vital to the walrus.

Tony Fischbach: Typically they’ll be down at the bottom of the sea for about 7 minutes, foraging, come back up, breath for two minutes, go back down and do that. Do that dive after dive after dive for hours on end. Take a brief rest as maybe they move to another clam bed and continue that. As far as human memory goes Pacific Walrus females and their young have always rested on sea ice.

Narrator:  But now the summer sea ice is gone more quickly. This leaves female walrus and their calves with no ice to rest on above their favored feeding grounds. Either they travel longer distances to feed, or they have to forage in deeper waters.

Tony Fischbach: Native Alaskan’s rely very strongly on Pacific Walrus.

Vera Metcalf: The Yupic (sp) word for walrus is Iva (sp), it’s very important not only for our food, whole parts of the walrus are used to make skin boats, hides, the tusk is made into very beautiful artwork, it’s part of our identity, culturally.

Tony Fischbach: It’s hard to imagine life for many of these people without having this relationship with walruses.

Vera Metcalf: With the increased ship traffic, the changing environment, weather, climate changes, really concerns us, because we hope that walrus is there for us to continue hunting.

Narrator:  This longer season of open water has created the potential for greater human presence. Now there is more opportunity for trans-ocean shipping, fishing, offshore oil and gas development, and tourism. Walrus and their calves must now contend with increased human presence – just as the security of their summer sea ice disappears.

Chad Jay: One of the things we’re seeing is mortality to calves and young animals because in these large haul outs if there’s a disturbance the walruses want to flee into the water and very often some of the younger animals get trampled and killed.

Narrator:  In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concluded that listing of the walrus as a Threatened Species was warranted. Information is being gathered to support a final decision in 2017.

Skipper, Carl Schoch: How’s it look all clear?

Scott Hameister: Yup all clear.

Skipper, Carl Schoch: Thanks very much guys.

Harbor Master: You guys have a good sail.

Skipper, Carl Schoch: Thanks Joy, we’ll see you in a few days I guess.

Narrator:  Society needs to better understand how the walrus is faring. USGS scientists are working to see whether they are finding enough food, and where. And to provide information to policy-makers to help avoid human disturbances to the walrus. Where are the walrus foraging?  Over the past several years USGS scientists have led expeditions to the remote Arctic to find out.

Tony Fischbach: In the Alaskan waters we have about 95% of the world’s walruses, there are perhaps 200 to 300,000. During this trip we’ll be applying 40 radios to walruses.

Chad Jay: The satellite radio tag has a barbed end and attaches in the blubber layer of the walrus. It’s more probably like a sliver that we get in our thumb and with time it migrates out of the animal and drops off.   Essentially, we’re looking for walruses hauled out along the ice edge and when we get into any numbers of them we’ll launch the skiffs and start our tagging.

Tony Fischbach: A quarter mile.

Skipper, Carl Schoch: Hello, Norseman II go ahead.

Sarah Sonsthagen: You wouldn’t by chance have an eye on those wallys that we left behind do you?

Skipper, Carl Schoch: Uh not right now I’m directing the other boat but I can take a look for you.

Sarah Sonsthagen: Thank you, yeah we’re kind of tooling around the wave point we took and we’re not feeling them.

Skipper, Carl Schoch: The other skiff is just about on them so do you have a fix on them?

Tony Fischbach: uh roger we’ve got them in the AIS we’ll just follow on in.

Skipper, Carl Schoch: That’s my best advice. If I see that you’re going the wrong way I can redirect you.

Tony Fischbach: uh Scotty this is tony here we’ve got an initial two groups so we’re holding the position and we’ll give you a bearing when you’re ready.

Scott Hameister: Very good, thank you.

Tony Fischbach: We’ve got to find walruses that have fallen asleep with their face into the wind. They’re very sensitive to smell.

Sara Sonsthagen: We’re going to make an approach on these walruses they’re a little skittish so I’m going to go radio quiet a little here.

Tony Fischbach: We have to be about ten yards because we have to have a clear view of the walruses back. We then place the radio on their back.

Chad Jay: Did you see the animal we tagged?

Tony Fischbach: Uh negative we….. 

Narrator: By the end of the 2012 expeditions, USGS will have tracked more than 400 walrus in the Chukchi Sea, with each walrus contributing data about its movement and behavior for the few weeks that the radio tags fall off. What is the result of the disappearing sea ice?

Tony Fischbach: On an hourly basis these instruments can show us weather the walrus is resting out of the water, uh in the water or actually foraging at the bottom of the sea. The instrument collects that information, summarizes it every hour and then when the weather satellites are passing overhead it transmits a signal eventually back at my desk I’ll unfurl this information and build a diary for the walrus. After a period of 3 weeks maybe at the very most 12 weeks the walrus skin rejects the radios.

Narrator:  Multiply that by 400 walrus.

Chad Jay: What we’ve learned so far though, is we have been able to map some of the important areas for walruses for foraging and also how they’re migrating through the Chukchi Sea as the sea ice retreats north we’re understanding more how the walrus migrate through the area.

Tony Fischbach: One of the goals of this project is to understand how their time allocation is changed when there’s no sea ice to rest on. When they forage from shore they have a very different time budget than when they are offshore foraging. They’re basically having to commute to get their food.

Narrator:  Within the span of human memory, female walrus and calves have not been seen foraging from shore in this way. This behavior is a new response to change in their environment. What are the consequences?  Now scientists have the information to analyze how much energy is used on these long commutes, combined with a reduction in resting time.

Tony Fischbach: Doing this tracking we’re able to identify sort of the core foraging grounds of Pacific Walruses, this is of great value to people who are concerned about new developments in the Chukchi Sea both of transoceanic shipping that may be occurring in the near future and of oil leasing.

Chad Jay: But walruses are also very important to subsistence users, Alaska Natives, they’re very interested in knowing more about what we’re finding out and really what’s going on with climate change.

Vera Metcalf: Hopefully, the work that USGS does helps to sustain walrus for us in the future.

Narrator:  How are the walrus affected by increased human activity?  How far must they go to forage? There is no way to learn, but up close, in their habitat. And so... In the remote Arctic waters of the Chukchi Sea, scientists continue on – tracking the Pacific walrus. (END)

Above: Pacific Walruses Resting on Sea Ice in the Eastern Chukchi Sea, Alaska, on 15 July 2012.  Source: S.A. Sonsthagen, USGS.

Online Resources

Looking for some fun ways to help the walruses?  Adopt a Walrus. Make a symbolic walrus adoption to help WWF protect walruses and other wild animals and their habitats.

From USGS:

Postings on the WWF Climate Blog about walruses and the haul-outs in 2009, 2010 and 2011:

WWF Climate Change Blog > Regions > Arctic:

Record Arctic ice low drives urgent global action. Press release (19 Sep 2012) from WWF International.


Haulout Keepers. "This website is Dedicated to the Project, `Guardians of the Walrus Haul outs' - Monitoring of Coastal Walrus Haul outs in Chukotka. The project is conducted by a non-profit organization, 'The Association of Traditional Marine Mammal hunters of Chukotka (ATMMHC)' with support from ..... (PERK) and the Chukotka Branch of the Pacific Research Fisheries Center (ChukotTINRO)."

Walruses of Russia.  Joint project of WWF Russia and Marine Mammal Council.

Wildlife Conservation Society > Pacific Walrus


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