The Fight to Save Walruses in the Final Frontier
By Christopher St. Martin, Staff Contributor
The Endangered Species Act provides walruses and other marine mammals with official protection. Nonetheless, walruses’ chances of survival have decreased in recent years. In addition to climate change, oil exploration activities permitted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continue to impact walrus habitat and trigger rare walrus behavior.
On September 23, 2014, scientists photographed the largest gathering of Pacific walruses ever recorded. The walrus gathering, known as a “haul-out,” is located on the shore of the Chukchi Sea and is suspected to be a result of climate change.
Haul-outs, even on land, are natural. Walruses gather when they need to rest after hunting for food. The warming climate, however, has forced females and their young–who would otherwise rest on ice–to gather on the land with males, leading to haul-outs of increased size. In these larger groups, young walruses face an increased risk of being trampled in the event that predators or humans startle the group.
“In these larger groups, young walruses face an increased risk of being trampled.”
Both federal and local governments have taken steps to reduce the human impact on walrus populations. The nearby village of Point Lay has taken the lead in local conservation efforts. The village has worked to reroute airplanes and eliminate the use of boat motors near the walruses. Similarly, in other parts of Alaska, the Federal Aviation Administration issues flight advisories for wildlife-sensitive areas. The flight advisories stress that walruses are sensitive to human disturbances and note the risk of trampling posed by human presence.
“Both federal and local governments have taken steps to reduce the human impact on walrus populations.”
Walruses are candidates for endangered species status and are therefore protected by the Endangered Species Act. The act prohibits the “take” of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas. To take an animal is “to harass, hunt, capture, or kill” the species. The act, however, provides that certain activities may be given an “Incidental Take Authorization” if it is found that (1) the activities would only take small numbers of the species, (2) the take would have no more than a negligible impact on the species, and (3) the harm would not have an unmitigated adverse impact on the availability of the species or stock for subsistence uses.
On May 16, 2013, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service delivered a finding stating that issuing procedural regulations for the incidental taking of marine mammals during oil and gas industry exploration activities in the Chukchi Sea would comply with the requirements of the Endangered Species Act. The finding relies on “over 20 years of data on the encounters and interactions between polar bears, Pacific walruses, and Industry,” as well the risk of oil spill and “current information regarding the natural history and status of polar bears and Pacific walruses.”
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service believes that the incidental taking of marine mammals during oil and gas industry exploration would not violate the Endangered Species Act.”
The environmental nonprofit, Earthjustice, is challenging the Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to authorize incidental takes during oil exploration activities. The complaint alleges that the “finding of no significant impact,” failed to assess the walruses’ use of the Hanna Shoal reef as a food source.
Specifically, the complaint points out that the noises caused by air guns during oil exploration can be “detected by underwater hydrophones several thousand kilometers [away].” The complaint also emphasizes the threat of noise caused by drilling and aircraft, and the risk of oil spills.
“Noises caused by air guns during oil exploration can be ‘detected by underwater hydrophones several thousand kilometers [away].’”
Although oil exploration in the region logically seems to undermine local and federal efforts to protect the walruses, Earthjustice will have to establish that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s finding is arbitrary and capricious before a court can find a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act.
Shell Oil Company has already submitted plans to the federal government to drill six wells in the Chukchi region in 2015. If successful, the Earthjustice suit will complicate Shell’s efforts to drill in the Arctic, which have already suffered many setbacks.