With Inadequate Sea Ice North of Alaska, Walruses Haul-Out Along Russian Coast

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We reported last week (26 September 2012), that sea ice in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska had declined to the point where the National Ice Center had characterized an area preferred by walruses (Hanna Shoal) as open water. Without the sea ice they needed to rest on, walruses were headed ashore in search of a suitable area of coastal land where they could "haul out." We and others expected large numbers of walruses to haul out in the area of Point Lay, Alaska, where they have hauled out in recent years. But most of the walruses instead opted to continue swimming far to the West, to haul out in the vicinity of Russia's Cape Serdtse-Kamen where other walruses already were hauled out.

Walruses tagged with radio transmitters and monitored by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in mid-September were on sea-ice near Hanna Shoal in mid-September.  Most now are known to be at or near Cape Serdtse-Kamen.  Though we cannot yet confirm that large numbers of walruses are hauled out at the remote cape, that certainly was the case last year. By mid-October 2011, an estimated (and astounding) 100,000 walruses from both the U.S. and Russian sides of the Chukchi, had hauled out there.

Above: Walruses hauled out at Russia's Cape Serdtse-Kamen in October 2011.  Source: Chukot-TINRO.

In 5 of the last 6 years we have seen walruses forced from Hanna Shoal in large numbers because of inadequate sea ice (there was enough sea ice in 2008). In none of those years has it happened so late. Where walruses were headed ashore by early August last year, this year that did not happen until around 24 September because some ice managed to persist in the area of Hanna Shoal despite the record low level of sea ice in the Arctic this year (see "An Unprecedented Planetary Distress Signal": Arctic Sea Ice Extent Bottoms Out at a Record Low, WWF Cimate Blog, 19 Sep 2012).

It was a rough time for the walruses -- mostly females and their calves -- to swim to shore. Observers of the Chukchi Offshore Monitoring in Drilling Area (COMIDA) marine mammal aerial survey project reported on 24 September that sea state ranged from 4 to 8 on the Beaufort scale. In Beaufort 8 conditions, waves are 18-25 feet and winds are 39–46 mph. The next day conditions ranged up to Beaufort 7, only a slight improvement, and the observers reported “high sea states.” Again on 26 September they reported high sea states offshore.

Walruses that reached Point Lay appeared initially to congregate offshore, but decided for the first time since 2007 not to haul out in the area in large numbers when insufficient sea ice remained at Hanna Shoal (with the exception of 2008, when sea ice was sufficient). It is possible that at least for the walruses that initially arrived at Point Lay, surf conditions were too rough for them to come ashore. According to Francis H. Fay (Ecology and Biology of the Pacific Walrus, 1982): “Use of hauling grounds on shore seems to be very much influenced … by sea state…During storms with strong onshore winds and heavy surf, the hauling grounds usually are abandoned or remain unoccupied.

Above: Map showing Pacific Walrus haulouts (click for larger version).
Alaska's Point Lay is numbered 55 and 56, while Russia's Cape Serdtse-Kamen is 50
Source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Instead of hauling out at Point Lay, the tagged walruses -- and apparently most of the other walruses that left Hanna Shoal for the Alaska coast -- continued West across the Chukchi sea towards Russia.  Perhaps one factor pulling the walruses westward was the time of year.  In recent years when walruses hauled out along the Alaska coast in August or early September, many later in September or early October swam to the West to haul-out a second time on the Russian side of the Chukchi Sea.  So foregoing an Alaskan haulout in favor of a Russian haulout this year put them in the area of Cape Serdtse-Kamen at around the same time of year they were there in 2009, 2010, and 2011.  By skipping a haulout in Alaska, they ended up at Cape Serdtse-Kamen more-or-less on their new schedule.  While we can speculate, biologists no doubt are hard at work trying to understand what the walruses did this year, why they did it, and what the implications are in an era of rapidly changing climate.

Above: According to the map published today by the US Geological Survey, many of the
several dozen walruses tracked by the USGS now are in the area of Cape Serdtse-Kamen.
Just two weeks ago (in mid September), they were at Hanna Shoal. 
Note that when the tagged walruses are close to each other, only a single dot may be visible. 

Source: USGS.

Under normal conditions the females and their calves at this time of year might still be on the sea ice at Hanna Shoal safely resting; or feeding in that extremely productive area. Instead many were swimming from Hanna Shoal to Point Lay, a difficult, demanding and to some degree dangerous migration, especially with high seas – and especially for the calves. Extending the migration by continuing to Russia more than doubled the distance and the challenges.  We do not know if calves or adults perished en route.  We do not know what condition they were in when they arrived along the Russian coast; and we do not know how they will fare while hauled out around Cape Serdtse-Kamen.  They must compete with all the other walruses over nearby food sources; and while on the beach, the calves in particular will be vulnerable if the walruses are frightened and stampede into the water.

According to the Fish and Wildlife Service (Pacific Walrus 12-month Finding: Questions and Answers, 2011), this “loss of sea ice, with the resulting changes to walrus distribution and life history patterns likely to occur as a result, will lead to a population decline, and is a threat to Pacific walrus in the foreseeable future. Over time, walrus will be forced to rely on terrestrial haulouts to a greater extent. This will expose all individuals, but especially calves, juveniles, and females, to increased levels of stress from depletion of prey, increased energetic costs to obtain prey, trampling injuries and mortalities, and predation…”

Below: Photos of the massive walrus haulout at Cape Serdtse-Kamen in mid-October 2011 (click on images for larger versions).
: Chukot-TINRO.



Concerns Grow as Interests in both Russia and U.S. Respond to the Haulouts

From 23-24 February 2012, a Community Workshop on the Conservation and Management of Walruses on the Chukchi Sea Coast was held in Barrow, Alaska.  Organized and sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Eskimo Walrus Commission, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, the workshop "was to provide an opportunity for coastal communities and resource managers to exchange information and observations about the increase in use of coastal haulouts, and discuss ways to increase the involvement and participation of coastal communities in walrus research and management activities."  Among the participants were people (including community elders and subsistence walrus hunters) from the Alaska coastal communities of Point Hope, Point Lay, Barrow, Wainwright and Savoonga. The report says:

"The Arctic habitat of the walrus (Aiviq or Aghveq) is rapidly changing. In recent years, the Chukchi Sea has become sea ice-free in late summer forcing walruses to move to coastal areas (known as haulouts) to rest on land. As sea ice cover in the Chukchi Sea declines, human activity in the region is expanding, bringing humans and walruses into frequent contact. As walruses become increasingly dependent on coastal haulout areas, local conservation and management efforts are becoming increasingly important. The coastal communities of Alaska are first hand witnesses to the effects of climate change on walruses and are well positioned to take an active role in their management."

Just a month later (March 19-22, 2012) in Anchorage, Alaska, an international workshop, including U.S. and Russian biologist, was held to discuss issues relating to the massive haulouts that have accompanied the dramatic decline in sea ice.   According to the USGS, the workshop was to "facilitate the exchange of information concerning ongoing walrus haul-out monitoring efforts in Alaska and Chukotka; identify existing information gaps and priorities; discuss ways to improve, standardize, and coordinate data collection efforts in the US and Russia; formulate recommendations for additional monitoring efforts; and establish where there are opportunities for continuing and new funding" (from USGS Alaska Science Center, Weekly Highlights for 2-23-2012).  See Experts Meet to Discuss Future for Pacific Walruses as Sea-Ice Loss Forces Species onto Land (Press release, 29 March 2012, from Wildlife Conservation Society); and Experts Assess Health, Status, and Stewardship of Coastal Walrus 'Haul-Outs' (NewsBlaze, 31 March 2012).

Efforts that are coordinated and cooperative are essential to better understand and protect wide-ranging animals, like walruses,” said Howard Rosenbaum, Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Ocean Giants Program. “The results of this workshop will help us design and implement the most effective program to address the issues that currently threaten, and will potentially impact walrus populations in this expansive region in the coming years.

Online Resources

Looking for some fun ways to help the walruses?

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

WWF Russia:

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)."

Wildlife Conservation Society > Pacific Walrus

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.


From USGS:

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