Tag Archives: Chukchi Sea

Polar bear cubs play on the thin ice that supposedly threatens them with extinction

This video tweet deserves a post of its own: two relatively inexperienced cubs-of-the-year in Russia deliberately break through thin ice, fall into the icy water and crawl back out – over and over again, for fun, as their mother watches in the background. Play is one way animals learn important survival lessons and for polar bears, this is one of them:

Thin ice was a natural component of the Arctic long before polar bears evolved to live there: it is nothing new but dealing with it requires a strategy that cubs must learn.

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Ryrkaypiy ‘over-run’ by >50 polar bears is probably due to more Chukchi Sea bears

A scary-sounding headline from the BBC today screams “Ryrkaypiy: Far-north Russian village overrun by polar bears“. A little research would have shown (as I do below) that this sort of event is not unusual for this village, there is adequate sea ice off the coast to allow polar bears to hunt for seals if they choose to do so, and the photos provided do not support the claim that almost all of the polar bears “appeared to be thin” (see photo below and others). Similar incidents happened in 2013 and 2006. Increasing numbers of Chukchi Sea polar bears is the most plausible explanation for the recent abundance of bears at this village.

BBC Russian village Chukotka over run by polar bears BBC 5 Dec 2019 headline

BBC headline, 5 December 2019. Does that look like garbage these fat bears are feeding on or the frozen remains of dead walruses at the base of the Cape Schmidt cliff?

UPDATE 8 December 2019: A Daily Mail version of the same story (6 Dec) confirms the photo above is of bears feeding on walrus remains (not garbage) and has many more photos (plus a video) of a large number of bears, not a single one of which that I saw was ‘skinny’ (see quotes from the story below). See also the Siberian Times version (6 Dec) with the same pictures. My source for the story was an article published by the BBC, which ran the day before (5 Dec).

UPDATE 9 DECEMBER 2019: Now it’s apparently 63 polar bears threatening the village of Ryrkaypiy on the Chukotka coast, according to the Siberian Times yesterday and repeated by the Daily Mail (with more pictures and video). Russian media getting lots of mileage out of this one. The story now says the bears are feeding on “seals”, not walrus (to deflect attention over their long history of walrus/polar bear problems? Or just a bad translation?). Both stories repeat the claim that most of the bears are “skinny” despite the photos showing just the opposite: lots of fat, healthy bears.

Also, uniquely (and rather bizarrely), the Daily Mail piece claims the bears are being deprived of the “fish” they should be consuming:

Instead of hunting for fish in deeper waters , the bears are eating seal carcasses left in autumn.

Last year army servicemen cleared the village’s shore of remains of dead seals on which the bears are feeding.

Obviously written by someone who knows absolutely nothing about polar bears, who rarely, if ever, eat fish and certainly would not be eating fish at this time of year. Sea ice map below for 8 December 2019 from the Alaska Sea Ice Program for 8 December shows, as noted below, that there is enough ice offshore for the bears to hunt seals if they chose to do so (since eating long-dead walrus is much easier than going hunting):

Chukchi Sea ice stage of development 8 Dec 2019 Alaska Sea Ice program

UPDATE 14 December 2019: Apparently, the number of invading bears is now 72 (number gets higher every time someone asks, even though they are still talking about “about a week ago”: who exactly is doing the counting?), according to a story today in The Times (UK). Residents say they move walrus carcasses “away” from the village to a “feeding point” for the bears but it’s apparent the distance is insufficient to prevent problems with bears coming into town. While a local cleaner working for the polar bear patrol (well indoctrinated by the WWF who sponsor the program), proclaims the problem is “definitely” due to climate change, there is finally the admission in this article that the bears coming into town are young bears driven away from the walrus carcasses by larger, older animals (i.e. intra-specific competition). This piece also has a few new photos, including one (below) of fat bears getting into garbage (still no photos of the so-called “skinny” bears said to dominate this “invasion”) and also is the first I’ve seen that doesn’t state that there is no sea ice (only that the ice extent is lower than usual). Some progress, but balanced by the hype promoted earlier this week (at “Treehugger” – what a surprise) by former WWF activist Geoff York (now at Polar Bears International), who is still blaming this incident on lack of ice.

Ryrkaypiy bears in local garbage_The Times UK 14 Dec 2019

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Activist biologist filled with eco-anxiety shares unfounded fear of polar bear catastrophe

Misplaced eco-anxiety that kids have about polar bears starts with activist biologists like Steven Amstrup, spokesperson for an organization devoted to raising climate change alarm – and media outlets like The Guardian who help them spread fears unsupported by scientific evidence.

Kaktovik AK fat adult male polar bear mid September 2019_Ed Boudreau photo permission to use

Fat healthy polar bear male at Kaktovik, Alaska in the Southern Beaufort Sea, September 2019, Ed Boudreau photo, with permission.

You can’t get much more over the top than these statements from Amstrup today but read carefully: it’s either opinion or factual aspects of polar bear life (“we know that the bears aren’t feeding”) made to sound like new, terrifying developments that can be blamed on climate change. Continue reading

Polar bear habitat update at mid-June: more than enough for survival

Here we are at the middle of June, when most polar bears are pretty much done with hunting seals for the season. And despite hand-wringing from some quarters, sea ice extent is down only marginally from average at this time of year and certainly not enough to impact polar bear survival.

Polar_bear Bering Sea 2007 USFWS lg

Given the large expanse of open water in the Southern Beaufort so early in the season, one resident pessimist insists those polar bears are “challenged” by the lack of ice. If he is right, there should be reports of dozens upon dozens of skinny and dying bears along the coast of Alaska this summer. If not, he will pretend he never suggested any such thing.

So far, despite the early loss of ice in some regions, there have been no reports of polar bears ashore unusually early. Hudson Bay still has lots of thick first year ice, so despite the overall reduced Arctic ice coverage, none of the three Hudson Bay polar bear populations are facing the earlier-than-usual sea ice breakup this year as we keep being promised will show up. In fact, there hasn’t been a significantly early breakup in Western Hudson Bay since 2010 (see previous posts here and here).

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It’s back: Bering Sea polar bear habitat has recovered from a low earlier this month

Fancy that! After a load of handwringing earlier this month, mobile pack ice in the Bering Sea has returned. Just like ice in the Barents Sea, Bering Sea ice is highly variable (Brown et al. 2011): it moves with winds and currents, so a ‘decline’ during the winter usually indicates redistribution, not melting.

Polar_bear Bering Sea 2007 USFWS lg

Polar bear on Bering Sea ice 2007 USFWS

According to researcher Rick Thoman from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, quoted by the Canadian Press:

“Wind blew ice to Russian beaches in the west and to the south side of Norton Sound south of Nome but left open water all the way to Chukchi Sea north of the Bering Strait.”

Polar bears that venture into the Bering Sea are part of the Chukchi Sea subpopulation, which is known to be thriving (Crockford 2019; AC SWG 2018; Regehr et al. 2018; Rode and Regehr 2010; Rode et al. 2013, 2014, 2015, 2018).

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Ringed and bearded seals, still listed as ‘threatened’, are still doing really well

This isn’t news but it’s good to hear it again, this time from the mouth of one of the biologists who collects the data: against all odds, the primary prey species of polar bears are doing spectacularly well.

Ringed seal Barrow AK_Brendan Kelly

According to leading seal biologist Lori Quakenbush of Alaska Department of Fish and Game, ringed and bearded seals in the Chukchi Sea are doing great (ADN, 11 February 2019, “Seals seem to be adapting to shrinking sea ice off Alaska”):

“We’re seeing fat seals,” said Lori Quakenbush, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Arctic Marine Mammal Program. “They are reproducing earlier than they have in the past, which says they are getting enough nutrition at this point to grow quickly and become reproductive at an earlier age.”

Quakenbush looking for ringed and bearded seals in Chukchi sea_11 Feb 2019 ADNRinged and bearded seals across the Arctic, including the Chukchi and Bering Seas, were listed as threatened in 2012 by the US, hot on the heels of polar bears given the same status in 2008 (USFWS 2008, 2012a, 2012b). But American biologists didn’t even pretend that the seals were currently suffering, they simply assumed they would sometime in the future (Cameron et al. 2010; Kelly et al. 2010).

Now, ten years worth of low sea ice of the kind expected to drive polar bears to the brink of extinction later, and ringed and bearded seals are doing better than they did in the late 1970s and early 1980s when there was more summer ice (Adam et al. 2019; Crawford and Quakenbush 2013; Crawford et al. 2015). Quakenbush now has data that extends the period of recent research to 2016, from 2013 previously.

It’s hard to imagine stronger evidence in support of retracting the ESA ‘threatened’ species status designation for ringed and bearded seals: clearly, ringed and bearded seals did not respond as expected when summer sea ice declined dramatically in 2007.

However, all that seems to have happened is that Quakenbush is willing to admit to a journalist that biologists can’t tell the future:

“…two predictions that we made about what could be bad for walruses, just within a couple of years turned around and were sort of the opposite.”

Quakenbush has been watching marine mammals throughout her long career, and she has given up predicting their future. She says that biologists know what the animals do with ice because they have studied that, but we don’t know what they do without it.

Read the whole thing here.

Unfortunately, predicting the future was precisely what US biologists insisted they could do accurately in 2012, even though no other conservation organization in the world concurred with their assessemnt, including the IUCN. The IUCN Red List classified both ringed and bearded seals as species of ‘Least Concern’ in 2008 and in 2016 (Kovacs 2016; Lowry 2016; Kovaks and Lowry 2008; Kovacs et al. 2008).1

Bearded Seal_25 Oct 2016_9th Circ. Backs Climate Predictions_The Guardian headline

Footnote 1. The suggestion made in this article that Sea of Okhotsk ringed seals have only recently begun to give birth on the sea ice without making snow caves or ‘lairs’ is not true. Sea of Okhotsk ringed seals have been known to give birth in the pack ice (not on fast ice) without snow dens since at least the 1960s (Fedoseev 1975:158; Kelly et al. 2010a:10) and also in the ice of western Svalbard (Smith et al. 1991:129).

References

Adam, R., Bryan, A., Quakenbush, L., Crawford, J., and Biderman, L.2019. Bearded seal productivity in Alaska using harvest-based monitoring, 1975-2016. Poster presentation, Alaska Marine Science Symposium, 28 January-1 February.

Abstract: Declines in arctic sea ice extent, thickness, and duration are projected to negatively impact bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus) by reducing their time to rest, pup, nurse, and molt on sea ice. Existing population estimates for bearded seals in Alaska cannot be used to detect trends; however, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game works with Alaska Native hunters to collect data from the subsistence harvest that are used to determine several population health indices, such as: pregnancy rate, age of maturity, and the proportion of pups in the sampled harvest. These indices were previously used to determine if declines in sea ice have affected bearded seals between 1975–1984 and 2003–2014.

During these time periods pregnancy rates varied minimally (92–99%); however, the average age of maturity decreased from 4.2 years in 1975–1984 to 2.9 years in 2003–2014. Additionally, pups were harvested in lower proportions during 1975–1984 than during 2003–2014 (26% and 48%, respectively), indicating that pups are still being produced, weaned, and are surviving to be harvested. Through 2014, we have not detected the decreases in population indices that have been predicted to occur with climate change. However, due to continued declines in sea ice, further monitoring is important; therefore, here we update our 1975–2014 results to include samples from 2015 and 2016.

Cameron, M. F., Bengtson, J. L., Boveng, J. K., Jansen, J. K., Kelly, B. P., Dahle, S. P., Logerwell, E. A., Overland, J. E., Sabine, C. L., Waring, G. T. and Wilder, J. M. 2010. Status review of the bearded (Erignatha barbatus). NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-211.
www.afsc.noaa.gov/Publications/AFSC-TM/NOAA-TM-AFSC-211.pdf

Crawford, J. and Quakenbush, L. 2013. Ringed seals and climate change: early predictions versus recent observations in Alaska. Oral presentation by Justin Crawfort, 28th Lowell Wakefield Fisheries Symposium, March 26-29. Anchorage, AK. Abstract below, find pdf here:http://seagrant.uaf.edu/conferences/2013/wakefield-arctic-ecosystems/program.php

Crawford and Quakenbush_Wakefield Abstract_2013 Ringed Seal_predictions not met
Crawford, J.A., Quakenbush, L.T. and Citta, J.J. 2015. A comparison of ringed and bearded seal diet, condition and productivity between historical (1975–1984) and recent (2003–2012) periods in the Alaskan Bering and Chukchi seas. Progress in Oceanography 136:133-150.

Fedoseev, G. A. 1975. Ecotypes of the ringed seal (Pusa hispida Schreber, 1777) and their reproductive capabilities. In Biology of the Seal, K. Ronald and A.W. Mansfield (eds.), pp. 156-160. Rapports et Proces-verbaux des Reunions, Conseil International Pour L’Exploration de la Mer 169.

Kelly, B. P., Bengtson, J. L., Boveng, P. L., Cameron, M. F., Dahle, S. P., Jansen, J. K., Logerwell, E. A., Overland, J. E., Sabine, C. L., Waring, G. T. and Wilder, J. M. 2010. Status review of the ringed seal (Phoca hispida). NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-212.
www.afsc.noaa.gov/Publications/AFSC-TM/NOAA-TM-AFSC-212.pdf

Kovacs, K.M. 2016. Erignathus barbatus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T8010A45225428. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/full/8010/0

Kovacs, K. and Lowry, L. (IUCN SSC Pinniped Specialist Group) 2008. Erignathus barbatus. In: IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2. . Downloaded on 29 December 2012. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/8010/0

Kovacs, K., Lowry, L. and Härkönen, T. (IUCN SSC Pinniped Specialist Group) 2008. Pusa hispida. In: IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2. . Downloaded on 29 December 2012. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/41672/0

Lowry, L. 2016. Pusa hispida. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T41672A45231341. http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/41672/0

Smith, T. G., Hammill, M. O. and Taugbøl, G. 1991. A review of the development, behavioural and physiological adaptations of the ringed seal, Phoca hispida, to life in the arctic winter. Arctic 44:124-131.

US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). 2008. Determination of threatened status for the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) throughout its range. Federal Register 73: 28212-28303.

US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). 2012a. Threatened status for the Arctic, Okhotsk and Baltic subspecies of the ringed seal. Federal Register 77: 76706–76738.

US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). 2012b. Threatened status for the Beringia and Okhotsk distinct population segments of the Erignathus barbatus nauticus subspecies of the bearded seal. Federal Register 77: 76740–76768.

Chukchi Sea polar bears number almost 3000 according to new survey results: update

The Chukchi Sea finally has a polar bear population estimate! According to survey results from 2016 only recently made public, about 2937 bears (1522-5944) currently inhabit the region, making this the largest subpopulation in the Arctic. This is exciting news — and a huge accomplishment — but the US Fish and Wildlife Service responsible for the work has been oddly mum on the topic.

beaufort-bears_-suzanne-miller-usfws-3-af-2c-on-spit-1.jpg

Not only that, but an extrapolation of that estimate calculated by USFWS researchers for Chukchi plus Alaska (the US portion of the Southern Beaufort Sea subpopulation) was estimated at 4437 (2283-9527), although with “significant uncertainty.” Nevertheless, it means the 2016 estimate for Alaska could be roughly three times what it was in 2010: a whopping 1500 or so, up from about 450 (or about 225-650) for the same area estimated during the last survey (Bromaghin et al. 2015: Fig. 5a).

Even if the real number for Alaska is only twice as large (~1000), that’s still a huge improvement. It would eliminate the Southern Beaufort as the only polar bear subpopulation in the Arctic to have shown a significant decline blamed on human-caused global warming (Crockford 2018). If the recovery is real, it means the 2004-2006 decline was a temporary fluctuation after all, just like previous declines in the region. I expect, however, that it will take a dedicated SB population survey for officials to concede that point.

There is not yet now a detailed report to cite (Regehr et al. 2018 in prep, see update below), but the numbers were announced at the 10th meeting of the Russian-American Commission on Polar Bears held at the end of July this year (AC SWG 2018) by Eric Regehr (formerly of the US Fish & Wildlife Service, as of 2017 at the University of Washington). [h/t to G.H.] This was the same report that raised the quota for subsistence hunting in the Chukchi from 58 to 85, based on these new figures, as I discussed last week.

Wrangel Island polar bear with cubs 2015 news story

From “Military bases to open on Wrangel Island and Chukotka” 22 October 2015.

Regehr was quoted as saying:

“Chukchi bears remain larger and fatter and have not seen downward trends in cub production and survival, according to new preliminary information on the health and numbers of bears.”

UPDATE 15 November 2018: The scientific paper describing the entirely new method (yes, yet another one: see Bromaghin et al. 2015) used to estimate the size of the Chukchi Sea population is now available (University of Washington press release here), in an open-access paper: Regher et al. 2018. News reports (see one here) spin the positive outcome as something that researchers expected all along but that’s simply not true. They expected Chukchi Sea bears and Southern Beaufort Sea bears to respond similarly to reduced amounts of summer sea ice, as explained here and in Crockford 2017).
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