Pacific walrus forced to shore

09 December 2007 | 03:10 Code : 16174 Geoscience events
The summer meltback of the Arctic Ocean ice to the smallest extent in modern....

  The summer meltback of the Arctic Ocean ice to the smallest extent in modern history wiped out the ice floes used by Pacific walruses as resting and hunting platforms over shallow water, forcing an extraordinary congregation of the tusked behemoths along the Russian Chukchi coast, according to a report by the World Wildlife Fund. In a phenomenon first reported in the Russian Arctic a few years ago, something like 40,000 walruses hauled out near Ryrkarphy village on Kozehvnikov Cape, on the Chukotka Peninsula west of Alaska, according to an Oct. 10 dispatch posted online by WWF Russia. The unprecedented gathering prompted Russian conservationists to push for some sort of nature preserve, and education, to protect the animals from hunting and harassment, the WWF release stated."Because of climate change, nowadays ice almost disappears from the Chukotka and East Siberian seas in summer", says Viktor Nikiforov, WWF-Russia Regional Programmes Director. "Multiyear Arctic ice moves northward, which means that in the coming years new haul-outs will appear on Chukotka Arctic coast. Walruses become exhausted after swimming hundreds of kilometers from pack ice to the coast, without a chance to rest. The sea without ice cover has frequent storms, which may lead to deaths of a large number of young walruses. Our common goal is to help walruses survive in this difficult time". Walrus make their living eating clams and other invertebrates nestled in the sea floor, and have evolved resting on floating ice. In a sense, the walrus ride the floes like conveyor belts - drifting back and forth over food beds.But during past several summers, Arctic ice has retreated hundreds of miles north of the Chukchi Sea food sources, forcing walruses to swim for shore rather than get stranded over deep water lacking suitable forage. In a different online story, the World Wildlife Fund says the gathering has become the largest walrus haul out in the entire Russian Arctic. Local people have stepped up to protect the multi-ton mammals.The area is currently being protected by the local community through the WWF-supported Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North . But more permanent protection, like a nature reserve, is needed to prevent walrus poaching and other threats to these large marine mammals."Because of climate change, ice is disappearing from the Chukchi and East Siberian seas during the summer months," says Viktor Nikiforov, director of Regional Programmes for WWF-Russia."This means that in the coming years new haul outs will appear along the Chukotka Arctic coast."Walruses need thick sea ice to support their weight and the shallow waters of the coastal zone to feed. Unlike seals, they cannot swim indefinitely and must pause after foraging. As the warming climate in the Arctic reduces the thickness and expanse of the ice, it also reduces the walrus' habitat."A nature reserve must be created to protect them," urges Nikiforov. "Our common goal is to help walruses survive during this difficult time."Evidence points to a clear trend towards an overall warming in the Arctic. As a result, the sea ice thickness has been reduced by 40 percent in the last 30 years. Some models suggest that by 2080, or possibly earlier, arctic sea ice will completely disappear during the summer months. This Russian walrus concentration had been echoed on the Alaskan shore, according to this story by the Associated Press: Thousands of walruses since late summer have congregated in haulouts on Alaska's northwest shore, a phenomenon likely connected to record low Arctic sea ice.Joel Garlich-Miller, a walrus expert with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in Anchorage, said Thursday animals began showing up on shore in late July, a month earlier than usual.By August, several thousand animals - far more than normal - were bunched up in haulouts in a stretch of coastline from Barrow, America's northernmost community, to Cape Lisburne, about 300 miles to the southwest on the Chukchi Sea, as first reported by The Arctic Sounder."It's raising a bunch of conservation issues for us," Garlich-Miller said.

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