Point Lay and the nearby beaches of Cape Lisburne might seem like popular spots for walruses, but the haulouts there are a recent phenomenon.
“We had a few times that they gathered,” Point Lay resident Allen Upicksoun told U.S. Fish and Wildlife workers in 2018. “They’d say, ‘lots of walrus up north.’ But there were 10 to 12, not 40,000.”
Since 2007, walruses have been hauling out on land between their hunts. Before then, they’d populate sea ice patches throughout the Arctic. Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman Andrea Medeiros says that sea ice hasn’t been as reliable in recent years.
“As the ice has retreated further north in the summer times, the walruses have been hauling out on land in larger numbers and for longer periods of time,” Medeiros said.
And Upicksoun of Point Lay wasn’t exaggerating about the numbers. Medeiros says that upwards of 50,000 walruses have been hauling out on Arctic shores since the decline in sea ice.
And that’s led to myriad new issues, especially due to the walruses’ temperaments. Medeiros says in the past, the ice allowed for safe respite for the marine mammals.
“They can just, if something disturbs them, drop off into the water,” Medeiros said. “So when they’re on land, they tend to be skittish.”
If 10 or 12 walruses were hauling out on shores, being skittish wouldn’t be that big of a deal. But the average pacific walrus weighs more than a ton, and when 50,000 of those heavy animals panic in a tight space, Medeiros says there’s a high risk for mortality among the smaller ones.
“They’ll stampede into the water, and in that process, any weak animals — any animals that are young and small — can get trampled and severely injured and sometimes are killed,” Medeiros said.
For Point Lay locals like Julie Itta, this is a risk to those who rely on the walrus as part of their subsistence diet. She told Fish and Wildlife interviewers in 2018 that the people of Point Lay have a traditional connection with the animals that spans generations.
“That’s something that this village has always been strong in, is that spirituality we have with our animals. Because they provide for us,” Itta said. “So if you’re not taking care and respecting them in the way that you’re supposed to, they won’t give themselves to you.”
Point Lay residents sometimes are able to harvest the animals that are trampled due to stampedes, but only if they’re able to get to them in time. For them, a better solution is to prevent disturbances in the first place. That means constantly monitoring the walruses to make sure they’re alright and penalizing those who get too close.
Last year, two pilots were fined $3,000 for disrupting a haul out in 2017. It was deemed a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Upicksoun says it’s all a way to make sure that the life cycle for both the residents in the village and their marine mammal neighbors can remain fruitful.
“Walrus are important because of the animal chain,” Upicksoun said. “They go down and harvest small animals, and the small animals depend on them. We depend on them. It’s all part of the animal chain.”
Fish and Wildlife officials expect the walruses to haul out on the shores near Point Lay through October.