Two private pilots have been fined $3,000 for disturbing a Pacific walrus haulout near the village of Point Lay two years ago.
“Cameras captured the pilots flying over the haulout and also recorded the animals fleeing into the water,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros.
Medeiros says when walruses haul out on land, they tend to get skittish and are prone to stampede towards the water when startled. She says stampedes can sometimes result in the deaths of younger walruses.
Since 2007, Fish and Wildlife has noticed an increase in walrus haulouts on land due to declining sea ice.
“Typically if they’re on ice — they normally would be residing on ice flows — if they were disturbed, they would drop off the ice into the water,” Medeiros said. “But when they’re on land, they can’t do that.”
The two pilots were fined for violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which prohibits killing, harassing and other various actions that would disturb the walruses. Some exceptions to the act are made for scientific research and subsistence hunting by Alaska Natives.
Tens of thousands of walruses are hauled out near Point Lay, according to Fish and Wildlife.
Medeiros says that historically, the village of Point Lay works in conjunction with the federal government to serve as stewards of the walrus haulouts.
“When they see boats coming too close, they do take their radio and hey call out to boats and advise that they move further from the haulout,” Medeiros said. “So they’re very engaged with trying to keep those animals safe while they’re on shore.”
She says the U.S. Fish and Wildlife has guidelines for pilots and mariners who plan on being in the area to prevent walrus disturbances.