Pacific Walrus Protection and Management in a Changing Climate

Date: May 18, 2016

A new report published by Pacific Environment examines potential projects to protect and manage walrus and other ice-dependent species population in Arctic.

On both sides of the International Date Line, indigenous communities and scientists are seeing less sea ice and more walruses hauling out in greater numbers on land. The report explores the pivotal role these marine species play in indigenous peoples’ way of life, the urgency to establish extensive marine protected areas, and the need to establish intercollaboration management efforts between indigenous peoples, scientists, and governmental agencies.

Executive Summary

While land-based haulouts are not a new phenomenon, the large numbers of walruses involved and changes in haulout patterns have sparked interest and concern. There are particular concerns for indigenous marine mammal hunters in Alaska and Chukotka (Russia), as they face hunting challenges due to reduced sea ice, unpredictable  weather, and the northward shift in walrus movement.

Disturbances to haulouts can result in stampedes, which in turn can lead to mortality. Walrus carcasses left in the aftermath of a stampede can attract polar bears, which pose a danger to nearby villages. Disturbances come from planes and helicopters (including military aviation), cargo and cruise ships, fishing vessels, polar bears, and interactions with dogs and humans (including vehicles, tourists, and media trying to get  images).

Disturbances on both sides have resulted from aviation and vessel traffic. Human interference has been a greater source of disturbances on the Russian side than on the U.S. side, given that there are fewer haulouts on Alaska lands and they are generally not adjacent to communities. It is unclear how climate change will affect walrus in the future. Some expect the walrus population to decline. Short of reversing climate change, strategies to protect and manage the walrus population can focus on avoiding or minimizing disturbances that affect walrus well-being or provoke stampedes.

The United States has extensive laws that relate to marine mammal protection, but no mandatory restrictions on aircraft altitude over walrus haulouts. There are a number of voluntary guidelines and examples of community initiatives and voluntary collaboration with agencies. While there are Russian laws governing marine mammals, endangered species, and activity near haulouts, they are not well enforced. Chukotkan communities bear the brunt of walrus protection but lack any legal authority.

Comparatively, there are more opportunities for co-management, collaboration, and consultation in the United States. Still, indigenous peoples on both sides have expressed concern about the limitations to their management roles. Top-down governance appears insufficient to adequately manage walruses. There is generally little desire to see more laws and rules legislated at high levels, particularly in the absence of local and indigenous participation and  consultation.

There is interest on both sides in collaboration between indigenous peoples and scientists, and between Russian and U.S. agencies and communities. The seminar held at the Arctic Science Summit in Fairbanks, Alaska, from March 15 to March 16, 2016 was designed to bring these groups together to discuss priorities for management, as well as opportunities for international collaboration.

The seminar led to a better understanding of the current situation related to sea ice and marine mammals (namely the walrus), as well as existing and potential management laws and measures. Future meetings that focus on the entire Bering-Chukchi Sea ecosystem (beyond just the walrus) would be useful to participants and to walrus protection and management efforts.

The following strategies for protecting walruses and supporting the communities that depend on them are based on suggestions raised at the seminar and additional research. Most are more likely to be feasible on the U.S. side, but some could involve international cooperation. While these strategies are geared toward walrus protection, they could potentially apply to other pinnipeds, and (with some alteration) to other marine mammals. As emphasized at the seminar, it is important not to think of walruses in isolation, but as part of a larger ecosystem involving Chukotkan and Alaskan communities.

  • Protected Areas: Conduct outreach to get more insight into what kinds of protected areas, if any, stakeholders would support. Consider protections that target specific sources of disturbance rather than potential hunting restrictions.
  • Co-Management and Delegation: Explore ways to transfer more management responsibilities to communities. This may involve better utilization of U.S. laws providing for co-management, organically created co-management agreements, or management training workshops sponsored by non-government organizations (NGO’s), universities, or agencies.
  • Cooperation with the Private Sector: Explore ways to have ships and aircraft voluntarily avoid hunting and haulout areas through agreements with major industry operators, or by advocating for insurance policies that require or incentivize compliance with voluntary guidelines.
  • Ensure that Consideration of Walrus Haulouts is “Mainstreamed” into Bering Strait/Chukchi Planning: Ensure that protection measures for walrus (and other marine mammals) are integrated into larger plans for the Bering and Chukchi regions (such as oil spill plans).
  • Adaptable Calendar Map with Regulatory Option: Create a publicly accessible, regularly updated Geographic Information Systems map showing migration  routes, feeding areas, haulouts, and possibly subsistence  areas  throughout  the  Bering and Chukchi  Seas.  Establish  voluntary buffers  and  altitude restrictions based on this  map.1
  • Coordinating Website, Newsletters, and Calls: Establish a single, regularly updated website to keep track of past, ongoing, and proposed research, as well as guidelines, laws, permits, and advisories applicable to Russia and the United States. Prepare newsletters on recent developments in research, management, and development activities to circulate to communities and individuals that  may not have regular Internet access. Hold conference calls with stakeholders where community residents could report disturbances and ask for corrective action.
  • Exchanges: Facilitate exchanges that bring together stakeholders from remote communities in Chukotka and Alaska along with regulators, researchers, NGOs, and scientists from both sides of the International Dateline.

View the full report