Tracking Pacific Walrus: Expedition to the Shrinking Chukchi Sea Ice

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Summer ice retreat in the Chukchi Sea between Alaska and Russia is a significant climate change impact affecting Pacific Walruses, which are being considered for listing as a threatened species. This twelve minute video follows walruses in their summer sea ice habitat and shows how USGS biologists use satellite radio tags to track their movements and behavior. The information identifies areas of special importance to walruses during sparse summer sea ice and as human presence increases in the region from oil drilling and activities such as shipping and tourism now possible with less ice.


Date Taken:

Length: 00:11:45

Location Taken: Chukchi Sea north of Alaska, AK, US


What is endearing to be said about a 4,000

pound mammal with huge canine tusks?1 Hear
the scientists who work with them:

Tony Fischbach: Walruses love to be next to
each other.

Sarah Sonsthagen: Theyíre so gregarious.

Tony Fischcbach: Theyíre always checking
in with each other, they kind of snuggle on

top of each other.

Chad Jay: They tend to kind of Posey up and
have these little bluff charges then at the

last minute dive under the water.

Tony Fischbach: As soon as theyíre concerned
about something their first response is to

turn to their companions on the ice pan and
sort of sniff them and nudge them, itís almost

as if theyíre saying, ìDid you notice something?î

Sarah Sonsthagen: The pups are like 150 lbs.
when theyíre born.

Tony Fischbach: When you see them swimming
the calves will be holding on tight to the

mothers back.

Sarah Sonsthagen: Itís just neat to see something
so big, so caring.

Narrator: Today, the Pacific walrus is facing
new challenges.

This is walrus territory ñ the Chukchi Sea,
part of the cold remote Arctic.

This vast shallow sea stretches from the†
shores of northern Alaska across to Russia.†

It's the summer range† for Pacific walrus
females† and their young.†

Over the last 30 years† the Chukchi Sea

has experienced a dramatic
Loss of sea ice due to†climate change.

Since 2007, this summer ice retreat has accelerated
taking the ice edge into much deeper water.

This has created a new situation for the Pacific

Tony Fischbach: In 2007 we observed it, uh
we dropped our jaws it really wasnít something

we expected to see so soon.

This has forced walruses to come to shore
to rest, 40,000 at a time or something that

really hadnít been seen before in the United

Why does this matter to the walruses?

Chad Jay: They eat things that live on the

Their main pray item is clams, but they will
take a wide variety of organisms on the sea


Very often marine worms and large snails and
other things.

They dive to the bottom and them kind of root
around in the sediment with their muzzle and

the whiskers, the vibrice on their muzzle
are very sensitive and tactile.

And they kind of use those almost as fingers
to sweep the bottom.

Most of the worldís ocean is 10,000 feet


Beneath the Chukchi Sea is an immense continental
shelf that is only 150 feet deep.

This vast shallow sea is extremely rich in
the clams and worms so vital to the walrus.

Tony Fischbach: Typically theyíll be down
at the bottom of the sea for about 7 minutes,

foraging, come back up, breath for two minutes,
go back down and do that.

Do that dive after dive after dive for hours
on end.

Take a brief rest as maybe they move to another
clam bed and continue that.

As far as human memory goes Pacific Walrus
females and their young have always rested

on sea ice.

But now the summer sea ice is gone more quickly.

This leaves female walrus and their calves
with no ice to rest on above their favored

feeding grounds.

Either they travel longer distances to feed,
or they have to forage in deeper waters.

Tony Fischbach: Native Alaskanís rely very
strongly on Pacific Walrus.

Vera Metcalf: The Yupic (sp) word for walrus
is Iva (sp), itís very important not only

for our food, whole parts of the walrus are
used to make skin boats, hides, the tusk is

made into very beautiful artwork, itís part
of our identity, culturally.

Tony Fischbach: Itís hard to imagine life
for many of these people without having this

relationship with walruses.

Vera Metcalf: With the increased ship traffic,
the changing environment, weather, climate

changes, really concerns us, because we hope
that walrus is there for us to continue hunting.

This longer season of open water has created

the potential for greater human presence.

Now there is more opportunity for trans-ocean
shipping, fishing, offshore oil and gas development,

and tourism.

Walrus and their calves must now contend with
increased human presence ñ just as the security

of their summer sea ice disappears.

Chad Jay: One of the things weíre seeing
is mortality to calves and young animals because

in these large haul outs if thereís a disturbance
the walruses want to flee into the water and

very often some of the younger animals get
trampled and killed.

In 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

concluded that listing of the walrus as a
Threatened Species was warranted.

Information is being gathered to support a
final decision in 2017.

Skipper, Carl Schoch: Howís it look all clear?

Scott Hameister: Yup all clear.

Skipper, Carl Schoch: Thanks very much guys.

Harbor Master: You guys have a good sail.

Skipper, Carl Schoch: Thanks Joy, weíll see
you in a few days I guess.

Society needs to better understand how the

walrus is faring.

USGS scientists are working to see whether
they are finding enough food, and where.

And to provide information to policy-makers
to help avoid human disturbances to the walrus.

Where are the walrus foraging?

Over the past several years USGS scientists
have led expeditions to the remote Arctic

to find out.

Tony Fischbach: In the Alaskan waters we have
about 95% of the worldís walruses, there

are perhaps 200 to 300,000.

During this trip weíll be applying 40 radios
to walruses.

Chad Jay: The satellite radio tag has a barbed
end and attaches in the blubber layer of the


Itís more probably like a sliver that we
get in our thumb and with time it migrates

out of the animal and drops off.

Essentially, weíre looking for walruses hauled
out along the ice edge and when we get into

any numbers of them weíll launch the skiffs
and start our tagging.

Tony Fischbach: A quarter mile.

Skipper, Carl Schoch: Hello, Norseman II go

Sarah Sonsthagen: You wouldnít by chance
have an eye on those wallys that we left behind

do you?

Skipper, Carl Schoch: Uh not right now Iím
directing the other boat but I can take a

look for you.

Sarah Sonsthagen: Thank you, yeah weíre kind
of tooling around the wave point we took and

weíre not feeling them.

Skipper, Carl Schoch: The other skiff is just
about on them so do you have a fix on them?

Tony Fischbach: uh roger weíve got them in
the AIS weíll just follow on in.

Skipper, Carl Schoch: Thatís my best advice.

If I see that youíre going the wrong way
I can redirect you.

Tony Fischbach: uh Scotty this is tony here
weíve got an initial two groups so weíre

holding the position and weíll give you a
bearing when youíre ready.

Scott Hameister: Very good, thank you.

Tony Fischbach: Weíve got to find walruses
that have fallen asleep with their face into

the wind.

Theyíre very sensitive to smell.

Sara Sonsthagen: Weíre going to make an approach
on these walruses theyíre a little skittish

so Iím going to go radio quiet a little here.

Tony Fischbach: We have to be about ten yards
because we have to have a clear view of the

walruses back.

We then place the radio on their back.

Chad Jay: Did you see the animal we tagged?

Tony Fischbach: Uh negative weÖ..

By the end of the 2012 expeditions, USGS will

have tracked more than 400 walrus in the Chukchi
Sea, with each walrus contributing data about

its movement and behavior for the few weeks
that the radio tags fall off.

What is the result of the disappearing sea

Tony Fischbach: On an hourly basis these instruments
can show us weather the walrus is resting

out of the water, uh in the water or actually
foraging at the bottom of the sea.

The instrument collects that information,
summarizes it every hour and then when the

weather satellites are passing overhead it
transmits a signal eventually back at my desk

Iíll unfurl this information and build a
diary for the walrus.

After a period of 3 weeks maybe at the very
most 12 weeks the walrus skin rejects the


Multiply that by 400 walrus.

Chad Jay: What weíve learned so far though,
is we have been able to map some of the important

areas for walruses for foraging and also how
theyíre migrating through the Chukchi Sea

as the sea ice retreats north weíre understanding
more how the walrus migrate through the area.

Tony Fischbach: One of the goals of this project
is to understand how their time allocation

is changed when thereís no sea ice to rest

When they forage from shore they have a very
different time budget than when they are offshore


Theyíre basically having to commute to get
their food.

Within the span of human memory, female walrus

and calves have not been seen foraging from
shore in this way.

This behavior is a new response to change
in their environment.

What are the consequences?

Now scientists have the information to analyze
how much energy is used on these long commutes,

combined with a reduction in resting time.

Tony Fischbach: Doing this tracking weíre
able to identify sort of the core foraging

grounds of Pacific Walruses, this is of great
value to people who are concerned about new

developments in the Chukchi Sea both of transoceanic
shipping that may be occurring in the near

future and of oil leasing.

Chad Jay: But walruses are also very important
to subsistence users, Alaska Natives, theyíre

very interested in knowing more about what
weíre finding out and really whatís going

on with climate change.

Vera Metcalf: Hopefully, the work that USGS
does helps to sustain walrus for us in the


How are the walrus affected by increased human


How far must they go to forage?

There is no way to learn, but up close, in
their habitat.

And so...

In the remote Arctic waters of the Chukchi
Sea, scientists continue on ñ tracking the

Pacific walrus.