What are the threats facing the Pacific walrus, and what can be done to save them from the risk of extinction?
What is the Pacific Walrus?
The Pacific walrus is a subspecies of the walrus (also known as Odobenus rosmarus). They can be found in the seas of Chukchi, Bering, Laptev and East Siberia. In the waters of the Chukchi Sea, they eat the likes of clams and mussels, mostly using their vibrissae – or whiskers, to locate their prey. In fact, when they feed, they don't actually use their tusks.
The Arctic Sea ice is crucial to the everyday lives of the Pacific walrus in a number of ways. It acts as a means of travel, a place of rest, a nursery for young calves, and a place to breed.
The history of the Pacific walrus has seen notable ups and downs. In the 1960s, numbers of the Pacific walrus dropped to a new low. But thanks to dedicated conservation efforts, those numbers bounced back again in the 1980s.
But sadly, today, those numbers have dropped again. It's estimated that there are only 129,000 of this species left.
Why is the Pacific walrus at risk?
The levels of greenhouse gas emissions have reached the point where it's greatly affecting Arctic sea ice. If the rate of global warming continues as it is, then it's estimated that 40% of Winter sea ice in the Bering Sea may disappear by the 2050s. Furthermore, Arctic Summer sea ice is estimated to completely disappear by 2030, or even before that predicted date.
Recent reports of Arctic sea ice levels have nor been forthcoming. They reached new lows in the Autumn of 2016 and the Winter of 2017, while the sea ice in the Chukchi Sea retreated at record rates this May.
Matters haven't been helped by President Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord and to consider opening up the Arctic to offshore oil drilling. The latter factor would speed up the rate of sea ice loss, putting the Pacific walrus at even greater risk.
What happens to the Pacific walrus as a result?
The higher levels of Global Warming mean that Summer sea ice retreats further north, meaning that Walrus females and calves don't have a place to rest. As a result, they have to relocate to the nearest shore – or as it's known, haulout.
For example, since around 2007, every Autumn, great numbers of the Pacific walrus (numbering tens of thousands) gather along the shoreline of Enurmino (a Russian village located along the Chukchi Sea).
The problem with the haulouts is that females and their young are at risk of stampedes from other panicked walruses. Once on land, the walrus can be frightened by a number of potential threats – passing aircraft, humans, predators... That moment of panic can cause walruses to stampede, killing the more vulnerable of their numbers in the process.
A number of incidents have seen tragic losses of the Pacific walrus. Between 3000 and 4000 walruses were trampled to death along Chukotka. 131 walruses were trampled to death off the North West coast of Alaska. In 2017, a haulout close to Cape Schmidt, Russia, resulted in 500 deaths.
Apart from the haulout problem, the Pacific walrus is also threatened by starvation, owing to oil-polluted seas affecting food supplies.
What can be done to help the Pacific Walrus?
Fortunately, measures are being taken to help protect the Pacific walrus. For example, locals of Point Lay (located off the Chukchi coast) are helping the walruses, and cautioning the public against doing anything to frighten or disturb this species.
The WWF has also made a number of notable contributions to this cause. In coastal Russia, it has worked with local communities to help protect migrating walruses – as an example, they have worked with the local residents to introduce strict no-fly zones and to limit public access to areas where haulouts occur.
Meanwhile, researchers have worked with the residents of Enurmino to create artificial feeding spots along polar bear routes (the project gas received support from the WWF's Wildlife Adaptation Innovation Fund).
As a means of keeping polar bears and other predators away from Pacific walrus nesting grounds, the WWF and local villagers have taken walruses that died from natural causes to polar bear feeding areas along the Chukotka Coast.
As a result, there has been a considerable drop in the number of polar bear disturbances to haulouts. Two other villages near haulout areas – Ryrkaypiy and Vankarem – are predicted to do the same in the very near future.