64 walruses found dead at Point Lay haulout
Dozens of walruses were found dead earlier this month at their seasonal haulout near Point Lay.
The findings came just about a day after locals said they saw an airplane they believed to be flying inappropriately over the herd, which comes to shore each year once the sea ice recedes past the continental shelf and it becomes too deep for them to feed.
"We had heard from the community that they had seen an aircraft flying over the animals at [an altitude] they believed to be too close, and circled the animals," said Andrea Medeiros, a spokesperson for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The community is very concerned about these animals when they are onshore and don't want people to disturb them by flying over or trying to approach in any way, like using a boat."
The walruses haul out on a barrier island across from the townsite. This year, the herd, which can top out at tens of thousands of individuals, formed its earliest haulout on record, starting on Aug. 3.
In the past, tourists have approached the community once the annual event begins, trying to get rides or excursions to view the animals, which are sensitive to human contact. Locals say they will typically refuse these requests and discourage viewing.
Fish and Wildlife contracts with a local resident to do on-the-ground carcass counts and surveys throughout the season. He knows how to approach the herd without disrupting it, Medeiros said. Good weather meant he was able to cross the lagoon to the haulout within about a day of the unexpected flyover and counted the carcasses of 64 animals, many of which were quite young.
"They're pretty skittish when they're on shore and they're easily disturbed," Jim MacCracken, program lead for the walrus and sea otter programs at the Fish and Wildlife, told the Sounder in August. "It doesn't take much to get one going and it ripples through the herd and they stampede to the water. They run over the little animals and trample them to death or cause serious injury and they die later."
The exact cause of the animals' deaths is not yet known. A likely cause could be a stampede, which could have started if some of the walruses were frightened by the low-flying aircraft, but at this point, that's just speculation.
"We're going to take a look at that and see if we can figure out if there's any kind of association with those two events," Medeiros said. "We'd have to have a veterinarian take a look to determine how long those animals have been deceased, because it could be that it's been more than just one single incident that caused those animals to die."
Carcass counts are a typical part of monitoring the animals, though bad weather and other circumstances can prevent them from happening regularly. So, it's possible different animals died at different times, all between the previous and the most recent count.
"The weather can add and take away carcasses, too, so an event can maybe cause some animals to die, but maybe some of those carcasses get swept away and maybe some animals die at sea and are swept ashore," she said.
For that reason, it's also hard to say whether or not this many dead animals is out of the ordinary or surprising, she explained, without knowing the exact circumstances surrounding each of their deaths.
Fish and Wildlife is sending a representative and a biologist to take a look at the animals and meet with community members.
However, Medeiros said it will probably be a while before a veterinarian can make the trip and determine a more precise time and cause of death for them.
A representative from the Native Village of Point Lay said he had "no comment" when asked about the walrus deaths, the plane sighting, and what he would like people to know about keeping the animals safe.
However, in a videotaped message from last year, Kali Village IRA President Leo Ferreira III asked visitors to please stay away from the haulout.
Not only can the village of Point Lay not accommodate that many tourists with its limited resources, it's dangerous for the herd.
"We had [an] unknown amount of aircraft coming to Point Lay, not landing but flying by and disturbing the walruses. We noticed that during that time the airplane traffic was causing stampedes. I witnessed it with my own eyes," Ferreira said in the video. "It was not good because these walruses that we [saw] that were dead seemed pretty healthy to us. The only thing we could think of was the airplane that caused the stampede. It was kind of heartbreaking to see that these animals were being wasted this way in this manner."
Medeiros said the community has been working with Fish and Wildlife for years now to try and "prevent those kinds of incidents from happening.
"Coming to try and view the animals is risky to the animals. It puts the animals in potential jeopardy and the community is asking people to stay away," she said. "It is a violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act to disturb these animals, to alter their behavior, and so forth. Having these animals pass away can be avoided, insofar as the cause is human action."
Fish and Wildlife and the community of Point Lay have been in touch with the Federal Aviation Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, air carriers, and shipping companies to let them know the walruses have formed their annual haulout.
Additionally, private visitors and local residents are asked to follow guidelines issued by Fish and Wildlife to both pilots and mariners that provide tips on keeping the animals out of harm's way. They can be found at https://www.fws.gov/alaska/fisheries/mmm/walrus/pdf/guidelines_mariners.pdf and https://www.fws.gov/alaska/fisheries/mmm/walrus/pdf/Guidelines_aircraft_pilots.pdf.
Any incidences of animal harassment or injury can be reported to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Office of Law Enforcement at 1-877-535-1795 or 1-800-858-7621.