Walruses Move Ashore as Sea Ice Melts

As their sea ice habitat diminishes in the Arctic, Pacific walruses increasingly use coastal lands to haul out, and feed in the surrounding shallow waters. Because this phenomenon poses new threats to walrus populations, conservationists are adopting new strategies to monitor and protect them.

The beaches of Alaska’s northwest coast are getting crowded. Giant aggregations of walruses are an increasingly common sight on the lands adjacent to the Arctic Sea, where warming temperatures have caused sea-ice—an important walrus habitat—to retreat farther into the Arctic Basin, and largely out of reach.

In both 2010 and 2011, walruses hauled out onto the northwest Alaskan coast in the tens of thousands—a phenomenon previously unknown to the region. Historically, females and their calves have used sea ice to rest, eat, and float to new feeding areas. But with the ice now restricted to areas over deeper waters, walruses avoid it, as they cannot swim to such depths to feed (walruses root out their prey from the ocean floor). Consequently, the animals are increasingly forced to feed in the shallow coastal waters, and swim to land to rest.

On land, walruses face greater risks to their survival. They can exhaust the food supply near the coastal haul-out locations, and their calves are prone to injury or death, as larger walruses often stampede when faced with minor disturbances such as rocks falling from a cliff or seabirds taking off in a flock. A young walrus can easily be crushed in the ensuing chaos. Village dogs may also harass land-bound walrus herds, and industrial activities, particularly those involving planes and helicopters, can also cause problems.

Read full article, which was published by Wildlife Conservation Society

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