Hijacking Successful Walrus Conservation

Successful Walrus Conservation

The walrus is another example of improving environmental stewardship. Valued for its oil and ivory tusks, the Pacific walrus was subjected to intense commercial slaughter in the mid 1800s, and by the early 1900s, many worried they would soon go the way of the dinosaurs. Although population estimates have always been highly uncertain, as hunting was progressively limited, Pacific Walrus populations “increased from 50,000 to 100,000 animals in the late 1950s to more than 250,000 animals by 1985,” and they are believed to have now reached their maximum carrying capacity.557  As walrus numbers rebounded, they have crowded together at historic coastal haul-outs (Haul-outs are land locations where walruses congregate when not swimming). However some advocates are using the walrus’ recovery as evidence of ecological disruption caused by global warming and the loss of sea ice. But their fears would vanish if they had a more historical perspective.

In 1923 Captain Joseph Bernard published an account in the Journal of Mammalogy about the inspiring conservation efforts he had observed in the village of Ingshong on the Siberian coast. There the wisdom of walrus conservation, dressed in the trappings of shamanic beliefs, had fostered a dramatic comeback in local walrus abundance.

When Capt. Bernard had first visited the village of Ingshong, he met an ordinary hunter named Tenastze. Eighteen years later, Tenastze had become Chief. His rise to the top began when he gathered together the men of Ingshong and neighboring villages to discuss a decade of failed walrus hunts and disappearing herds. Walruses had once come to rest on their beaches in countless numbers, but the beaches were now empty. Tenastze believed that there was no one in the village looking after the spirit of the walrus and summoned a small group of shamans to peer more deeply into the problem.

After days of extended drumming and an induced trance, the shamans reported that indeed someone had offended the spirit of the walrus and poisoned the land. To break the spell of evil, the people had to choose a strong chief who promised to guard the walrus’ spirit.

Their first step was to sacrifice the first walrus that presented itself to the village’s hunters. After ritualistic preparation, its skull was placed on a long stick. Holding the other end of that stick, the strongest man in the village would attempt to lift the skull in response to each question. Like a shaman’s version of the Ouija board, questions were directed to the walrus spirit. If the strongman was unable to lift the skull, it was a negative answer. If the spirits wanted to respond positively, the spirits imbued the man with enough strength to lift the skull. One by one, the names of all the men vying to be the new chief were offered to the walrus spirit. Only when the name Tenastze was spoken could the strongman lift the skull. (Although I love the story’s ending, the skeptic in me can’t help but wonder if Tenastze paid off the strongman.)

Now in charge, Tenastze quickly designated a round-the-clock guard to insure that the walruses were not disturbed. When the walruses first appeared in the coastal waters, fires were not allowed and alcoholic drink was forbidden. Shortly thereafter, a lone venturous walrus finally settled on their beach, and spent the night undisturbed. After each feeding foray, that walrus returned again and again and each time brought more and more walruses. By the time the autumn sun was retreating south, and the winter freeze beginning, several hundred walruses had come ashore. Only then were the people allowed to take their allotted kill; most walrus were permitted to go away unharmed. The walruses seemed unaffected by this limited hunt, and the next year many more came ashore. As the years passed, the herd grew to such proportions that villagers told Bernard, “last year the beach was so crowded when the walruses hauled there, many walruses were crushed to death just from overcrowding.”558

In 1925 Bernard again wrote in the Journal of Mammalogy, advocating for walrus sanctuaries in Alaska to the south of Barrow. He contrasted the more conservation-minded village of Ingshong to the settlement of Point Hope on the Alaskan Coast. Thirty years before, the walruses had hauled out by the thousands and some would even wander into town. However the traders, whalers, and Inuit of the settlement were all too quick to shoot any weary walrus coming ashore. Subsequently, for the last twenty years live walruses had become a rare sight on that beach.

The European settlers of that time had embarked on a withering onslaught, motivated by a lucrative ivory market. In just a few decades the only surviving walruses were the ones that had learned to avoid coastal haul-outs, finding greater safety on the ice floes or more remote islands. Nomadic Inuit hunters showed no greater restraint than the Europeans. They followed the wary walrus herds out onto the ice floes. Although walrus meat was highly valued, ivory tusks brought much greater returns. Along the 200 miles of shoreline near Pt Barrow, Alaska, Bernard counted 1000 walrus corpses washed ashore. One third of the corpses still retained their tusks; although shot, they had managed to slip into the waters before the hunters could cleave their tusks. The nightmare was likely far greater than evidenced by mere shoreline counts. If Bernard counted 1000 rotting carcasses washed ashore by the westerly winds, how many more were carried by the currents out to the Arctic Ocean, or to other distant beaches?

From 1900-1930, the annual harvest of Pacific walrus averaged 5000 per year. Despite growing concerns voiced by Bernard and others, that figured doubled to 10,000 per year between 1930 and 1950. The Pacific walrus was seemingly headed for extinction. Fearing this may be the last chance to observe living walruses, Francis Fay began compiling one of the most complete accounts of the ecology and biology of the Pacific Walrus for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. After more than two decades of research, “The Ecology and Biology of the Pacific Walrus” was published in 1982.

The 1950s were the 20th century’s nadir of walrus abundance. Over-hunting of whales and walruses had been so severe, the native Yupik of the St Lawrence Island found themselves on the verge of starvation. The Yupik had dodged an earlier threat of extirpation in 1879 when disease was introduced by visiting whalers. When John Muir and a Smithsonian naturalist visited the island they were horrified to find huts strewn with hundreds of dead bodies. There were few survivors. Although the Yupik population had only rebounded to just one-third of their pre-epidemic population, the slaughter of whales and walruses now denied the surviving Yupik adequate sustenance. According to Fay, “If remedial food supplies had not been provided by Federal and State governments, the islanders probably would have been afflicted again by starvation and death in 1954-55.”

When the walrus were plentiful in the 1800s, they had hauled out in great numbers on beaches. Fay reported that of “numerous coastal hauling grounds that were used on the Siberian coast in the early part of the century, only three remained in use by the mid-1950’s.” There were just too few Tenastze to guard the walruses. Thanks to hunting restrictions, the walrus rebounded. As populations returned to historical peak abundance, they began returning to former coastal haul-outs. Most recently walruses returned to an Alaskan beach about 140 miles southwest of Barrow. It was the general location that Captain Bernard wanted protected as a walrus preserve, and news of the walruses’ return would have certainly caused the good captain to celebrate. But not the global warming advocates. A stampede, most likely provoked by a hunting polar bear, left several trampled walruses. Although historically tramplings had been associated with great abundance, advocates spun it as proof of deadly CO2.

The Huffington Post published the following: “ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Trampling likely killed 131 mostly young walruses forced onto the northwest coast of Alaska by a loss of sea ice, according to a preliminary report released Thursday.” “Obviously it's a real tragedy, and it's one we're going to see repeated more and more as the climate warms and the sea ice melts," said Rebecca Noblin, staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD had petitioned to list walrus as threatened or endangered because of increased CO2 levels. The article makes the bold claim, "Were it not for the dramatic decline in the sea ice, the young walruses at Icy Cape most likely would be alive on the ice and not dead on a beach," said WWF [World Wildlife Fund] biologist Geoff York.”

However, by all historical accounts, land haul-outs were very common in a time of abundant sea ice. The lawyers and advocates were ignoring (or ignorant of) Bernard’s 1925 lament that “Thirty or forty years ago in various places along the Alaskan coast walruses were known to haul-out in countless numbers (emphasis added). It’s also doubtful they had ever read Fay’s mid-century accounts in which death by trampling was listed as one of the “top 3 natural causes of death to walrus calves exceeded only by deaths caused by killer whales and polar bears (emphasis added).” 

Fay’s research had compiled numerous reports depicting far greater mortality from trampling. Those deadly events happened when animals either hauled out in panic when pursued by killer whales, or when stampeded by attacking polar bears or humans. For example, in 1975, researchers reported a large number of dead animals during a stampede from a traditional hauling ground at Cape Blossom on Wrangell Island. The low-flying aircraft of the researchers had caused that stampede.

In the heavy ice year of 1979, Fay examined the remnants of the greatest trampling tragedy yet recorded. On Punuk and St Lawrence Island, “At least 537 animals died at one haul-out area,” and approximately 400 other carcasses washed ashore from other locations. Nearly all of the dead were extremely lean, having less than half as much subcutaneous fat as healthy animals examined in previous years.” St Lawrence Island and the Punuk islands lie directly in the migratory path of the walrus’ southward journey from their summer feeding grounds in the Chukchi Sea to their wintering areas in the Bering Sea. The tramplings were spread out over both traditional haul-out locations on the Punuk Islands and in “four other locations on St. Lawrence Island where locals claimed they had not been seen in recent memory.” A more thorough investigation unearthed abundant old carcasses and bones and laboratory dating techniques revealed those “new” haul-outs had been very active in the early 1900’s before hunting pressures decimated their populations.

The Demise of the Atlantic Walrus

All evidence indicates that walruses have always hauled onto land even during the severe ice conditions of the Little Ice Age. It was overhunting that drove walruses from the beaches, and this is clear from historical accounts of the first encounters between walrus and European hunters on the pristine Svalbard archipelago. In archaeologist Robert McGhee’s superb book on the Arctic, The Last Imaginary Place, he devotes an entire chapter to the “rape of Spitsbergen” (Svalbard’s largest island) and vividly documents the excesses of European harvests and glimpses of previously untouched Arctic wildlife. 

Svalbard is located about 180 kilometers to the east of Greenland across the Fram Strait. Each year the Arctic winds remove much of the Arctic’s sea ice through the Fram Strait, sending ice southward to melt in the northern Atlantic. The Arctic ice piles up on the frigid northern half of Svalbard, in contrast to its ice-free southern half. In March, sea ice has reached its maximum extent and thickness, but the warm nutrient-rich waters can keep Svalbard’s south side ice-free. Those nutrient-rich waters once sustained an awe-inspiring profusion of life that has yet to fully recover from overhunting.

Although ancient hunters had reached the Arctic 5000 years ago, they never reached the islands of the Svalbard archipelago. It remained pristine until the Europeans first discovered the islands in the 1500s. In 1596, the Dutch explorer Willem Barents is believed to be the first person to ever set eyes on Svalbard and the Barents Sea now bears his name. Barents wrote about feasting on the eggs laid by the Barnacle goose, which was the biggest scientific news of the times. Until Barents’ discovery, the Barnacle goose was the poster child for the theory of spontaneous generation. No European had ever seen a Barnacle goose egg. Yet every winter the Barnacle goose returned from its arctic breeding grounds to become one of the most abundant birds in Europe. It was a devious twist to the old question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” There was no egg. So their knowledge gap was filled with the prevailing bias of the time: the Barnacle goose appeared by spontaneous generation.

Despite Barents’ important contribution to scientific thinking, the Arctic showed him no mercy. Sharing the fate of many early explorers, he was trapped by unpredictable winter ice and died while overwintering on an Arctic island. But the news of a stupendous Arctic bounty spread. Eight years after Barents’ discovery, the English Muscovy Company set sail to harvest Svalbard’s abundant meat and furs. Their ships’ logs provide vivid accounts of massive herds of “sea horses” resting on the beaches. From company records, biologists estimate that the Svalbard Archipelago alone supported close to 25,000 walruses before European hunting began. That’s thousands more than currently populates the entire Atlantic sector today. By trapping the walrus on the beaches, within just six hours they butchered six to seven hundred walruses, and filled their boat with tusks and hides. But even more valuable were the 11 tons of oil for cosmetics and oil lamps that were highly prized by Europeans battling the frequent bouts of extreme cold that punctuated the ongoing Little Ice Age. Walruses and even polar bear were boiled to render their oil.

The walrus survived the first wave of hunters because Europeans quickly turned their harpoons on a far greater source of oil, Svalbard’s whales. The logs from those early walrus hunts spoke of an “endless pool of whales,” as did Henry Hudson’s during his ill-fated search for the Northwest Passage. After the whales were virtually eliminated by the 1800s, hunters again focused on the walrus; the most vivid description of their hunting techniques were preserved in Sir James Lamont’s 1852 Seasons with the Sea Horses: “On one venture, after discovering a herd of several thousand walrus reposing on the land, four boats carried 16 men armed with lances. They stalked the shoreline in order to place themselves between the walrus herd and the ocean. As the first wave of stampeding walrus tried to enter the water, they were killed or injured creating a row of dead bodies inhibiting the escape of the others. With lance or axe in hand, the crews marched forward and descended on the trapped herd, killing the rest. A total of 900 walrus were killed that day.”

The hunters also mastered the technique of luring in any walruses that had successfully fled to open waters. Manipulating the walrus’ family devotion, hunters captured and tortured a calf. The calf’s barking and agonizing grunts pulled on the heartstrings of the fleeing herd. As the entire herd returned to rescue the calf, they entered into harpoon range. Lamont described one harpooned mother that continued to tow their hunting boat while she valiantly carried her calf under her flipper and tusks, desperately trying to shuttle it to safety. Such gallantry prompted Lamont to praise “the wonderful maternal affection displayed by this poor walrus.”

Several northern European nations rushed to avail themselves of Spitsbergen’s cornucopia of marine life, sending warships to protect the hunters. The frenzied competition led to the destruction of Svalbard’s wildlife. Although most wildlife had already been eliminated, the 1920 treaty of Spitsbergen finally ended the tragedy of the commons and the “rape of Spitsbergen”. In 1986 when McGhee went to Svalbard to search for any evidence that early Inuit or more ancient Tuniit may have reached the island, he only found evidence of the European overkill. Massive whalebones abounded, and beaches were littered with tusk-less walrus skulls. The birds had returned to the ponds and cliffs, while the reindeer and fox were now more common. But the beaches that once sheltered thousands of walrus were still empty and silent.

Walrus Summer Migration

The notion that walruses only haul-out on land when deprived of ice is a story that would have been laughed at just 30 years ago. Previously it was thought that ice denied walruses access to their hunting grounds. Walrus require shallow seas where they suction the seafloor for shellfish. As late as 1982 scientists stated, the maximum absence of ice in the Chukchi Sea beneficially influences the population of the Pacific walrus permitting the animals to use vast feeding grounds in the summer and autumn seasons (emphasis added).” 561 Walruses do not require sea ice to hunt. Like Gray whales, they are associated with Arctic sea ice because it covers their food supply, and the current patterns of walrus migration support that view.

Unlike most females, thousands of male walruses never follow the receding ice pack but instead migrate southward to ice-free waters of the southern Bering Sea. Around Bristol Bay, Alaska, walruses readily forage up to 130 kilometers from their nearest haul-out site. The walrus’ main constraint is the water’s depth; they avoid regions where depths exceed 60 meters. Throughout the summer, adult males rest at their land haul-out sites for several days at a time between their offshore foraging trips which last four to ten days.” Swimming at normal swim speeds of 10 km/hour, walrus can cover the entire span of most shallow sea shelves in a few days, so there is little need for ice floe transportation. The males that do migrate north generally abandon the sea ice in spring and congregate on land haul-outs along the coasts of Russia and Alaska.

Alarmists suggest the increasing use of land haul-outs is a sign of disaster, caused by the loss of sea ice. However all the evidence argues that as walrus populations increase, so does the use of land haul-outs. It is a sign of the walrus’ successful recovery. When the Pacific walrus was teetering on the edge of extinction, “no walruses were observed along the Alaska Peninsula”, and only about a thousand animals were recorded at Walrus Island in Bristol Bay Alaska. By 1960 both Russia and Alaska had instituted protective measures and within 20 years, walrus populations rebounded to pre-exploitation levels. As the numbers grew, they began to reoccupy traditional land haul-outs. By 1980, the numbers of walrus hauling out on Walrus Island in the Pribilofs had grown from 3,000 to 12,000.

The use of land haul-outs still varies annually and (although poorly studied) is likely due to fluctuations in food supply. Massive herds suctioning the sea floor will eventually deplete a local food supply. Furthermore, regime shifts such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation alter the winds and currents that deliver nutrients. Most likely the productivity of ocean floors also oscillate in approximate 20 year cycles. For example, at Cape Pierce in southern Bristol Bay, more than 12,000 walruses were hauling out on the beaches each summer in the 1980s. Then suddenly most walruses disappeared for over two decades. Recently they have been returning to Cape Pierce and as of 2008, their numbers increased to over 5000.

More curious is the fact that these walruses are not content to just clamber out onto the nearest vacant piece of solid real estate and hunker down in an exhausted heap. The walruses of Cape Pierce appear to enjoy jaunty bouts of adventurous hiking. They also developed a fondness for climbing to the top of grassy plateaus. Unfortunately when they decide to reenter the water and feed, they sometimes charge off on an ill-advised shortcut. Some biologists have suggested that because they are limited by poor eyesight, they are just following their sense of smell and a direct line back to the ocean. Others suggest they are easily spooked by human disturbance or aircraft and stampede in a blind panic. Whatever the reason, between 1994 and 1996 over 150 bulls launched themselves into an undulating swan-dive. Lacking Greg Louganis’ grace, they plunged from the cliffs to their deaths 150 feet below. Only a few lucky ones were cushioned by their late brethren’s blubber, got a favorable bounce, and continued to the sea. Biologists have now erected a fence, hoping to deter other neer-do-well thrill seekers from taking the same fateful path to the top of the plateau.

The Pacific Walrus is now believed to have recovered fully to its historic population of about 200,000, but surveys have been limited and therefore carry great statistical uncertainty. However in the Atlantic there is no question this subspecies has never recovered from the human quest for blubber and ivory. Large herds had once hauled out on islands and the mainland beaches as far south as Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada. All those southern populations were completely exterminated. The early walrus population along the St. Lawrence River alone has been estimated at over 100,000. In contrast, today the entire Atlantic subspecies is confined to waters further north. No longer migratory, they typically reside in polynya, and their total population is a mere 20,000. With such low numbers, stories of trampling are rare from the Atlantic sector. A beach packed with walruses is evidence of better conservation, not global warming doom.