In unnerving trend, 35,000 walrus haul out at Point Lay

Pacific walrus. (Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association)
Pacific walrus. (Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association)

In what’s becoming an increasingly common sight, tens of thousands of walrus have hauled out on the coast of the Chukchi Sea near the Native Village of Point Lay.

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An estimated 35,000 Pacific walrus are currently crowding a barrier island just north of Point Lay, a phenomenon that has become more and more common.

The U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Native Village of Point Lay hosted a media teleconference last month to offer updates on the haulout and guidelines for the media. Tony Fischbach, a USGS wildlife biologist started off the call with an overview of the issue.

“So the main point here is that this is a new phenomenon of large coastal haulouts forming on the U.S. shores of the Chukchi Sea that has only been seen during years of complete loss of sea ice in the Chukchi Sea.”

The haulouts were first observed in 2007, coinciding with a record sea ice melt in the Arctic, as sea ice extent plummet to 39 percent below average. Female walruses and their young generally spend their summers on the sea ice, foraging in shallower areas for food. But as summer sea ice retreats, walrus are forced to spend summers on shore.

The haulout are concerning both to scientists and those who rely on them for food, as any disturbance can lead to deadly stampedes. Last year an estimated 60 young walruses were killed due to the concentrated haulouts.

Wildlife biologist Jonathan Snyder with Fish and Wildlife Service commended the nearby village for providing a safe place for the animals to haul out.

“I think the fact that walrus continue to haul out near the community of Point Lay year after year is testament of the fact of the great stewardship role that that community has taken. I’d imagine if that were not a safe place the walrus would not keep returning.”

Point Lay is doing its best to keep the walrus safe, but the village frustrated by the media that won’t keep their distance. In conjunction with Fish and Wildlife Service, USGS, and NOAA, the village of Point Lay issued a statement urging the media to keep their distance.

“The community does not have the capacity to house anybody visiting. This is a small community. Our population is only about 246 and it’s a subsistence community.”

Leo Ferreira the III, Tribal Council President of the Native Village of Point Lay, says the media isn’t listening. At least one person has disobeyed the villages’s multiple requests to keep their distance.

Gary Braasch, an environmental photographer, flew over the haulout on August 23rd. While he says he obeyed flight guidelines, a spokesperson for the Fish and Wildlife Service speaking to the Guardian newspaper, says his photos show walruses that appear to be agitated, fleeing the area.

Ferreira vented his frustration at the media.

“It’s very disturbing when you guys disrespect our way of living, disrespect our community and our wishes for the fact that you guys want a story and want a.. think you guys can come here and then go rent a boat, rent somebody’s boat and go across and disturb the walruses on your guys’s own. That’s not permitted. Not even our own people are permitted to go over there and disturb the walruses with a mass haulout like this.”

The community is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to issue notices and guidelines to pilots in the region. Ferreira says resident hunters have also have been reduced or redirected away from the haulout.

With freeze-up not expected until mid-October, the walruses are hunkered down on shore and the community and scientists hope that disturbances are kept to a minimum.

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Emily Russell is the voice of Alaska morning news as Alaska Public Media’s Morning News Host and Producer. Originally from the Adirondacks in upstate New York, Emily moved to Alaska in 2012. She skied her way through three winters in Fairbanks, earning her Master’s degree in Northern Studies from UAF. Emily’s career in radio started in Nome in 2015, reporting for KNOM on everything from subsistence whale harvests to housing shortages in Native villages. She then worked for a year at KCAW in Sitka, finally seeing what all the fuss with Southeast, Alaska was all about. Back on the road system, Emily is looking forward to driving her Subaru around the region to hike, hunt, fish and pick as many berries as possible. When she’s not talking into the mic, Emily can be found reporting from the peaks above Anchorage to the rivers around Southcentral.