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WWF Reaction to the Decision that Pacific Walrus Merit Protection under the Endangered Species Act

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) concurs with the Department of Interior’s decision on February 9, 2011 to recognize that the Pacific walrus, the largest pinniped species in the Arctic, merits protection under the Endangered Species Act. Pacific walrus use sea ice to forage in the shallow waters of the Chukchi and Bering seas, as well as to rest and give birth to their young. That ice is melting at a rapid pace and, as a result, there is a dramatic decrease in walrus habitat.

“The decision is an important recognition of the profound negative impact that a warming climate is having on the Arctic environment,” said Margaret Williams, Director of WWF’s U.S. Arctic Field Program.

The walrus will be added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s list of candidates for Endangered Species Act protection and its future status will be reviewed annually.

Quick action needed
WWF believes that, given that a status review for Pacific walrus has already been completed and that the findings from the review were warranted, the government should move forward quickly with additional research, monitoring and improved co-management.

“Slowing down the rate of sea ice loss and minimizing related impacts on this threatened species demands action from the American public and our leaders,” Williams said.  

WWF is also cautious about the government’s decision, as we recognize the importance of Pacific walrus to Arctic native people who have sustainably harvested these animals for centuries. Walrus are an important part of the nutritional, cultural, and economic lives of many Arctic native communities.

“It is essential to preserve the rights of Alaska’s native communities to continue subsistence activity and to ensure that they are intimately involved in designing solutions in the wake of this decision,” Williams said. 

Pacific walrus are currently harvested in what appear to be sustainable levels in both Russia and Alaska. However, as rapid climate warming further degrades walrus habitat, careful monitoring and management will be required to protect walrus and maintain viable populations.

Rapid ice melt
Arctic multi-year sea ice (more than two years old) has declined to record lows – falling from 35 percent of total sea ice in the fall of 1981 to less than 15 percent of the total in fall of 2010.  This has led to profound changes for walrus. They have been forced to spend more time on land, making them more vulnerable to disturbances and stampedes.

During the summer of 2010, an unprecedented haul-out of nearly 20,000 animals packed onto the beach near Point Lay, Alaska after their sea-ice habitat had melted. Such crowded conditions can become fatal, particularly for walrus young, in the event of a stampede. In 2009, scientists discovered 131 walrus that died likely due to a stampede. In addition to the adverse impacts of diminished habitat for walrus, the increasing absorption of carbon into the ocean makes the water more acidic which inhibits the ability of marine animals to make their shells. Known as ocean acidification, this process may have widespread negative effects on the marine food web, the productivity of ocean ecosystems, and the communities and economies that depend on them.