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Experts Meet to Discuss Future for Pacific Walruses as Sea-Ice Loss Forces Species Onto Land

04.04.2012
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.

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.

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

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.”

Along with conducting its own research in the Arctic, WCS has actively supported research at several sites along the Chukotka Coast through a Russian Federation partner, ChukotTINRO. WCS is also actively engaged with indigenous groups on both sides of Bering Strait who continue developing their own stewardship activities. For example, the Eskimo Walrus Commission recently passed a resolution to limit disturbance at coastal haul-outs.

The Native Village of Point Lay received the "Outstanding Partner" Award from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Alaska Region for their efforts to protect walruses on land; and the community of Vankarem on the north coast of Chukotka has worked to mitigate disturbance from the flights that service their community.

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.”

For further information on this story, or to talk with Dr. Martin Robards, please contact Scott Smith at 718-220-3698 or email ssmith@wcs.org.

Scott Smith | Newswise Science News
Further information:
http://www.wcs.org

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