Scientists are wondering about the long-term impacts of sea ice loss on the population. Chad Jay, a marine and wildlife biologist with the US Geological Survey, has tracked how much time walrus spend swimming, feeding, and resting, and how these patterns change depending on whether the animals haul out on land or on ice. His research team found that when the animals are on sea ice, especially in food-rich areas such as the Hanna Shoal in the northeast Chukchi Sea, they have everything they need in one place. The walrus can spend most of their time either in the water foraging or hauled out, at rest. “That’s the best situation for them,” Jay says. “When only land is available for resting, they spend more time in the water, not foraging, and not at ease.”
When on land, the animals are also farther away from their best food sources and may make long commutes to their feeding grounds. In 2011, Jay discovered that half of the animals he tagged made round trips of about 250 miles between Point Lay and the southern part of Hanna Shoal. “It would be a hardship for a calf to have to make that kind of journey,” says Jay. Walrus have the lowest rate of reproduction of any pinniped species, with mothers investing considerable care in their young.
In 2011, the federal government listed the Pacific walrus as a candidate for protection under the Endangered Species Act, because of concerns over the changing sea ice habitat, as well as other threats like increased shipping, changes in prey, and diseases. “With all the changes in the Arctic, it’s an uncertain future for walrus,” says Garlich-Miller.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service is currently reviewing the species’ status, and should reach a decision this year.
The walrus’s future also significantly impacts Alaska Native hunters, who depend on the animals to feed their families. In 2013 and 2015, the state of Alaska declared a walrus harvest disaster for the communities of Wales, Gambell, Savoonga, and the island of Little Diomede. Unusual weather patterns and difficult ice conditions prevented hunters from accessing the walrus as they migrated past the communities, resulting in a record-low harvest and food shortages. “Mitigating the negative impacts of climate change on walrus is critical,” says Vera Metcalf, executive director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission, the Alaska Native comanagement entity representing 19 walrus-hunting communities.
Point Lay is actively working to protect walrus from disturbances. When the animals arrive, the community works with air carriers to change flight routes and with the fishing community to minimize traffic near the haulout site. Residents monitor the walrus, report incidents of disturbances, and make sure that visitors and hunters stay away from the animals. The Eskimo Walrus Commission supports these efforts and passed a resolution in 2008 to minimize disturbance of hauled-out walrus, urging communities to protect walrus while they rest on land. “We hope that these animals that we rely on remain healthy, so our communities and people stay healthy,” says Metcalf. “We share this environment, and we either prosper or struggle as our natural resources do.”