With Inadequate Sea Ice North of Alaska, Walruses Haul-Out Along Russian Coast
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.
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).
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.”
Looking for some fun ways to help the walruses?
- "Make Tracks for Walruses" by participating in the Second Annual Wildlife Conservation Society "Run for the Wild," Saturday 6 October 2012 at 8:00 am at the New York Aquarium at Coney Island.
Adopt a Walrus. Make a symbolic walrus adoption to help WWF protect walruses and other wild animals and their habitats.
Walruses of Russia. Joint project of WWF Russia and Marine Mammal Council.
- Walrus home page (Russian)
- As climate change moves Arctic ice northward, walrus haul -outs become more massive. 10 October 2007.
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
- WCS Lauds U.S. and Russia for Commitment to Protect Transboundary Arctic Area. Press release, 12 September 2012.
- Walruses Move Ashore as Sea Ice Melts. 30 March 2012.
- 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. See also Experts Assess Health, Status, and Stewardship of Coastal Walrus 'Haul-Outs', NewsBlaze, 31 March 2012.
- In the Arctic, Fewer Icebergs, More Ships. Press release, March 16, 2012.
Postings on the WWF Climate Blog about walruses and the haul-outs in 2009, 2010 and 2011:
- Number of Walruses Hauled Out near Point Lay, Alaska, Swells to over 20,000 . 1 Sept 2011.
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Pacific Walrus "warrants protection under the Endangered Species Act". 2/09/2011.
- Video Footage Shows Huge Walrus Haul-Out Along Shoreline of Alaska's Point Lay .17 Sep 2010.
- Alaska Public Radio: Walrus Crowding Alaska’s Northwest Beaches . 17 Sep 2010.
- Tens of Thousands of Walruses Concentrating Along Alaska's Shore . 11 Sep 2010.
- USGS Confirms Thousands of Walruses Hauling-Out on Alaska's Northwest Coast as Sea Ice Rapidly Retreats. 7 September 2010.
- Walruses Again Being Forced Ashore as Arctic Sea Ice Retreats 30 Aug 2010
- The Pacific Walrus says: "The time has come...We have many things to talk about, people!" 18 Aug 2010.
- Dramatic Footage Shows Consequences for Walruses as Arctic Warms, 1 Oct. 2009
- As Arctic Sea Ice Reaches Annual Minimum, Large Number of Walrus Corpses Found Along Alaska Shoreline (18 Sept 2009)
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Reports on Pacific Walrus and Polar Bear Stocks in Alaska (3 Jan 2010)
WWF Climate Change Blog > Regions > Arctic:
- Arctic Sea Ice Decline and its Impacts: Online Resources.
- Recent posts:
- Losing the Top of the World: Breaking the Arctic Sea Ice One Record at a Time , 24 September 2012.
- "An Unprecedented Planetary Distress Signal": Arctic Sea Ice Extent Bottoms Out at a Record Low, 19 Sep 2012.
- More Evidence that Declining Arctic Sea Ice and Warming North Atlantic Disrupt Weather in Mid-Latitudes (video), 7 Sep 2012.
- NASA: Arctic sea ice reaches record low (video), 6 Sep 2012
- Arctic way of living 'under threat' (video), 6 Sep 2012
- Tracking the effects of climate change (video), 6 Sep 2012
- Arctic wildlife at risk from climate change (video), 6 Sep 2012
- The Melting North: Arctic Ice and Climate Change, Op-ed piece by Lou Leonard, originally published by Huffington Post.
- Arctic Temperatures Continue Rapid Rise as 2011 Breaks Record Set in 2010, 20 Jan 2012.
Record Arctic ice low drives urgent global action. Press release (19 Sep 2012) from WWF International.
- Arctic section of WWF International Web site >
- Arctic section of WWF-US Web site
- Arctic section of WWF Canada Web site
- Walrus tracking in the Chukchi Sea 2012! (for low bandwith users) Last updated September 25, 2012.
- The Science Behind the 2011 Walrus Haulout FAQ (pdf file 80kb)
- Video of onshore walrus aggregation, Point Lay, Alaska, September 2010
- Walrus Fact Sheet (Russian translation)