Experts Assess Health, Status, and Stewardship of Coastal Walrus 'Haul-Outs'
Conservationists from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Native groups, scientists, and agency staff from both the Russian Federation and United States met to address the need for effective responses to climate-driven increases in the numbers of Pacific walrus using land-based "haul-outs" during summer and fall months.
An alarming trend for the Pacific walrus
Coastal haul-outs aggregations of walruses on land numbering in the tens of thousands were previously unknown on the northwest coast of Alaska. Since 2007, there have been two years where walrus hauled out in the thousands, and in both 2010 and 2011 they hauled out in the tens of thousands.
Hauled out walruses at Cape Serdtse-Kamen (Chukotka, Russian Federation) where as many as 100,000 have been reported on land at one time. Chukotka is the neighboring Russian unit to Alaska.
The haul-outs are a result of warming temperatures that have caused sea-ice habitat to retreat farther into the Arctic Basin to areas over deeper water. This creates a difficult situation for females and their calves that have historically stayed with the ice to rest, feed, and float to new feeding areas. Walruses cannot swim to the ocean bottom to feed from ice over deeper water. In shallower water, walruses can feed but there is no ice on which to rest, which they must do every few days. Consequently, female walruses and their calves are increasingly forced to swim to land to rest.
On land, walrus face greater risks - including exhausting their food supply near the haul-out location. In addition, the calves are prone to injury and mortality from being crushed by larger walruses in stampedes caused by disturbances as seemingly insignificant as rocks falling off a cliff or seabirds taking off in a flock. Other disturbances include village dogs harassing the herd, or industrial activities particularly those involving planes and helicopters.
Densely packed Pacific walrus at Cape Serdtse-Kamen - Scientists took this photo while monitoring recent haul-outs occurring in far eastern Russia.
Industrial disturbances are expected to markedly increase over the coming years with the planned offshore developments in the Chukchi Sea. Of most concern, hauled-out walruses on some Russian beaches can number as high as 100,000, which likely represents about a half of the entire walrus population. Under such conditions, the threats from localized accidents such as oil spills are of great concern.
"To protect the world's walruses, it is critical that we move quickly in assessing how to respond to this recent phenomenon," said Dr. Martin Robards, Director of the WCS Berengia Program. "This means planning with our partners both at home and abroad, gathering and sharing consistent data, and understanding the science behind these events. Armed with this knowledge, we can make timely recommendations to wildlife managers and industry that provide the best chance for walruses to safely adapt to their new environment.
An international response
Photo taken of Pacific walrus at Cape Serdtse-Kamen (Chukotka, Russian Federation) during monitoring efforts conducted in fall 2011 by Chukot-TINRO with support from WCS.
Coming together to develop protocols and plan effective responses to walrus haul-outs, experts and representatives met in Anchorage for a walrus haul-out "workshop" from March 19 through March 22. Included among the attendees were representatives from the Wildlife Conservation Society, Russian Academy of Sciences, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Eskimo Walrus Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the All-Russian Institute for Nature, Marine Mammal Council, Association of Traditional Marine Hunters, ChukotTINRO, Native Villages of Point Lay and Savoonga, UMPKY Patrol and others.
The experts discussed challenges, including how to count and monitor walruses when there are tens of thousands of animals packed onto a single beach; how to monitor and respond when walruses begin using new coastal areas - particularly those close to development activities or villages; and effective protocols to understand disturbance, disease outbreaks and mortality among the herds.
By understanding haul-out use, population demographics, disturbance factors, and sources of mortality, scientists and indigenous partners can better inform land and resource management decisions, impact assessments, mitigation strategies for development projects and tourism, and contingency plans for disaster response.
"Efforts that are coordinated and cooperative are essential to better understand and protect wide-ranging animals, like walruses." said Howard Rosenbaum, Director of the WCS 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."
Walrus hauled out along the narrow rocky beaches of Kolyuchin Island in Chukotka (Russian Federation).
WCS Director of Marine Conservation Dr. Caleb McClennen said, "Transboundary and cross-cultural collaboration for the conservation of our oceans is an imperative. As marine ecosystems and wildlife adapt to the changing global climate irrespective of political boundaries, continued innovation by scientists, conservationists and people dependent on marine resources is critical to ensure the long-term productivity and biodiversity of the oceans. The need for international and cross-cultural collaboration on all levels is nowhere more critical than the changing Arctic."
The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide, through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes towards nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth. Visit: www.wcs.org
Related Top Stories News