A New Season for Sea Ice and Walrus

By: Olivia Lee, Assistant Research Professor, International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Unusually low Arctic sea ice conditions in the winter of 2017 brought to the forefront questions about what the impacts of low sea ice would mean for the communities and ecosystems in the Bering Sea. Spring, in the far north, is a critical time for walruses that use sea ice as a platform to give birth and nurse their young. It is also an important walrus hunting season for many of Alaska's Bering Strait communities that rely on a healthy walrus catch to support food security. Additionally, as winter storms batter and erode coastlines when there is no shorefast ice to protect them, the impacts of unusually low winter sea ice conditions on coastal communities go beyond the subsistence harvest success.

 Walrus resting on ice in late spring of 2018. On 18 May, Clarence Irrigoo Jr. reported "Very little ice left. Boats are harvesting walrus. Some went very far to the ice—up north 48 nautical miles—and some in the water." Photo courtesy of Clarence Irrigoo Jr., Gambell, Alaska. Walrus resting on ice in late spring of 2018. On 18 May, Clarence Irrigoo Jr. reported "Very little ice left. Boats are harvesting walrus. Some went very far to the ice—up north 48 nautical miles—and some in the water." Photo courtesy of Clarence Irrigoo Jr., Gambell, Alaska.

The Sea Ice for Walrus Outlook (SIWO) program, a long-term collaborative effort between academic and federal researchers, the Arctic Research Consortium of the U.S. (ARCUS), the Eskimo Walrus Commission, and coastal subsistence hunters in the Bering Strait region, was poised to provide some answers about how Pacific walruses migrating north in spring might respond to low ice conditions.

The 2018 spring season marked the ninth year for the SIWO program which has documented both ice and weather forecasts for Alaska's Bering Strait communities, and provides an archive of shared photos and descriptions of local ice and hunting conditions from sea ice experts and subsistence hunters from Bering Strait communities. The core SIWO communities in Alaska include Gambell, Savoonga, Wales, Nome, and Shishmaref, and now also includes observations from Little Diomede.

The spring break-up season is frequently unpredictable with variation in the amount of open water year-to-year, as seen in the composite of yearly images of sea ice in the Bering Strait region on 10 May each year from 2000 to 2018 on YouTube. However, the overall feeling of the local community observers in the Bering Strait is that the spring hunting season is getting progressively earlier, and the time frame for hunting is becoming much shorter. As described by Boogles Johnson from Nome, "The problem that I face with the changing sea ice conditions is that the window for hunting sea mammals is ever decreasing."

An analysis of low sea ice conditions at the beginning of the 2018 SIWO forecast season; provided by International Arctic Research Center (IARC) in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), emphasized some of the unusual conditions that affected the low sea ice observations and its impacts in SIWO contributing communities. However, the effects of the low sea ice on spring walrus hunting success was not catastrophic in 2018 compared to walrus harvest rates in recent years with declining sea ice–at least not for all walrus-hunting communities. An assessment report of walrus catch rates, in progress, by Igor Krupnik (Smithsonian Institute) and Brad Benter (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service) will provide insight into how some communities, such as Gambell and Savoonga, are able to adapt to change, while other coastal communities continue to experience declines in walrus harvest rates. Yet, the numbers on walrus harvest rates in each community still only tell part of the story about community resilience and adaptation. It also leaves us with almost as many questions about changes in walrus behavior in the Bering Strait as it does answers. Questions like: where are the females and calves going that may be affecting their lower availability to subsistence hunters?

At a time where there is limited support to track walrus behavior and migration (in 2017 and 2018 there were no large-scale walrus tagging studies to track walruses), the expertise of Bering Strait subsistence hunters and coastal observers provide invaluable support to understand the community impacts and ecosystem changes of low sea ice in spring. Through the eyes of Opik Ahkinga, we are able to see that walruses with young are now traveling on available ice floes past Little Diomede. As Opik stated this spring, "On May 2nd, herds of walrus and calves drifted north with the ice floe over the International Dateline. Locals stood on the helipad to watch them pass. At 8:45PM, one boat went out to hunt until late in the night. By early morning the ice had passed and it's open ocean again" (See photos and observation). Groups of female walruses with calves and yearlings used to be seen traveling north in early to mid-June. Boogles Johnson lets us know that walruses are now observed resting in water which is unusual when there is more ice available, "They are migrating west and north from the Norton Sound to their summer grounds and having to sleep in the water. This is the first time I've ever seen walrus sleep in the open water." (See link to observation). In Shishmaref, where there were no walruses harvested in 2018 Curtis Nayokpuk tells us that walruses were encountered in ice-free waters, but the hunting efforts focused on bearded seals, which included traveling 25 miles to hunt in the remaining ice (See observation). Nayokpuk is also the only SIWO contributor who has consistently provided observations for Shishmaref since 2010. The SIWO program was fortunate to have engaged with elders, Winton Weyapuk Jr. in Wales, Fred Tocktoo in Nome, and Paul Apangalook in Gambell, whose comparative descriptions of observed sea ice conditions in recent years to traditional knowledge of local sea ice has been an irreplaceable loss when they passed away. Our collaborations with Indigenous experts acknowledge the urgency of sharing knowledge to adapt to just how quickly conditions are changing in Bering Strait.

Further information about the Sea Ice for Walrus program and related efforts is available on the SIWO website.

For questions, contact Olivia Lee (oalee [at] alaska.edu)


About the Author

Olivia Lee Olivia Lee is an Assistant Research Professor at the International Arctic Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks. She has contributed to the Sea Ice for Walrus Outlook since 2013. Her background is in marine mammal behavioral ecology, and she currently collaborates with Indigenous sea ice experts and subsistence hunters to improve knowledge about changing marine mammal ecology where limited coastal observations exist.

Witness Community Highlights
30 November 2018 Issue

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