Walrus researchers from the US Geological Survey have a new report on the history of walrus haulouts in the Chukchi and Bering Seas – yet their media efforts (via press release and interviews) fail to mention the relationship between fluctuating size of walrus haulouts and fluctuating walrus population size that is evident in that history. In fact, overall population size is not mentioned at all.
Two articles came out over the weekend that announced the results of this new joint US-Russian initiative [PBS, Walrus beaching in Alaska might not be as harmful as it looks. Here’s why – 31 July 2016 and ADN, Alaska and Russia join forces to create 160-year database of walrus haulouts – 31 July 2016]
But neither articles nor the new USGS paper they are touting (Fischback et al. 2016) mention the huge summer/fall haulouts of females, calves, and juveniles that were documented in the 1970s that coincided with the huge population size at that time, which crashed in the 1980s.
Only now has the population grown (to at least 200,000) to the point that huge haulouts are again being reported – conservation has done it’s job. But when walrus numbers get too high the animals out-strip their food source and numbers plummet, as they did in the 1980s (Fay et al. 1989; Garlich-Miller et al. 2011). See my fully referenced summary paper, Crockford 2014 (On The Beach: Walrus Haulouts are Nothing New).
Here’s the concern: When (not if) a population crash happens again, will it be blamed on global warming rather than natural causes? According to the PBS article:
“The database is supposed to help federal officials with conservation, especially as more ships start sailing through the newly open waters. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is determining whether walrus should be listed as a threatened species.” [my bold]
My GWPF video on the issue (The Walrus Fuss) below:
See excerpts from the USGS database below, with a map:
USGS generated map below from the PBS article (read the rest here):
The USGS database (also available in report form, Fischbach et al. 2016) shows that in the 1970s around Punuk Island (see above map, south of the Bering Strait – at the eastern end of St. Lawrence Island), there were three haulouts of about 19,000-37,000 walrus documented by the foremost expert on walrus at the time (Francis Fay); in 2010, there was one (though a modern record, no size estimate is given for this record) – this is a cut and paste, my bold:
1970: Kialegak Point, Saint Lawrence Island, At least 10,000 and fewer than 100,000 walruses, Haulout description: Near the Southeast Cape of Saint Lawrence Island. History of use: Fay and Kelly (1980) estimate use by up to 37,000 walruses in October and November 1978. No subsequent use of Kialegak Point as a haulout site have been reported
1970: Maknik Lagoon, Saint Lawrence Island, At least 10,000 and fewer than 100,000 walruses, Haulout description: Barrier Islands offshore of Maknik Lagoon on the southeast coast of Saint Lawrence Island. History of use: Fay and Kelly (1980) note that a large herd (up to 35 thousand walruses) hauled out near Makinik Lagoon in October – November
1970: Salghat Beach, Saint Lawrence Island, At least 10,000 and fewer than 100,000 walruses, Haulout description: Seaward side of the barrier islands forming Seepanpak Lagoon 20 km west of Northeast Cape on St. Lawrence Island. Specific haulout sites not identified. History of use: Fay and Kelly (1980) report that an estimated 19,000 walruses
2010: Punuk Islands, Saint Lawrence Island, At least 10,000 and fewer than 100,000 walruses, Haulout description: The Punuk Islands are a chain of three small islets in the northern Bering Sea off the eastern end of St. Lawrence Island. Walrus haulouts have been documented on all three islands; the two northern-most islands are used most extensive
Fay, F.H. and Kelly, B.P. 1980. Mass natural mortality of walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) at St. Lawrence Island, Bering Sea, autumn 1978. Arctic 33:226-245. [open access] PDF here.
Fay, F.H., Kelly, B.P. and Sease, J.L. 1989. Managing the exploitation of Pacific walruses: a tradegy of delayed response and poor communication. Marine Mammal Science 5:1-16. PDF HERE.
Fischbach, A.S., Kochnev, A.A., Garlich-Miller, J.L. and Jay, C.V. 2016. Pacific walrus coastal haulout database, 1852-2016 – Background Report. USGS Open-File Report 2016-1108. DOI: 10.3133/ofr20161108 PDF HERE, download here.
Walruses are large benthic predators that rest out of water between foraging bouts. Coastal “haulouts” (places where walruses rest) are formed by adult males in summer and sometimes by females and young when sea ice is absent, and are often used repeatedly across seasons and years. Understanding the geography and historical use of haulouts provides a context for conservation efforts. We summarize information on Pacific walrus haulouts from available reports (n =151), interviews with coastal residents and aviators, and personal observations of the authors. We provide this in the form of a georeferenced database that can be queried and displayed with standard geographic information system and database management software. The database contains 150 records of Pacific walrus haulouts, with a summary of basic characteristics on maximum haulout aggregation size, age-sex composition, season of use, and decade of most recent use. Citations to reports are provided in the appendix and as a bibliographic database. Haulouts were distributed across the coasts of the Pacific walrus range; however, the largest (maximum >10,000 walruses) of the haulouts reported in the recent 4 decades (n=19) were concentrated on the Russian shores in regions near the Bering Strait and northward into the western Chukchi Sea (n=17). Haulouts of adult female and young walruses primarily occurred in the Bering Strait region and areas northward, with others occurring in the central Bering Sea, Gulf of Anadyr, and Saint Lawrence Island regions. The Gulf of Anadyr was the only region to contain female and young walrus haulouts, which formed after the northward spring migration and prior to autumn ice formation.
Garlich-Miller, J., MacCracken, J.G., Snyder, J., Meehan, R., Myers, M., Wilder, J.M., Lance, E. and Matz, A. 2011. Status review of the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens). US Fish and Wildlife Service, Anchorage, Alaska. PDF HERE.