The first circumpolar report on walrus conservation recommends research into the effects of industrial activities on the Arctic animals. The report comes as Arctic ice has plunged to record lows in recent years, and thousands of walruses have gathered on shorelines instead of sea ice.
“There is a need for international cooperation to manage shared walrus populations, and also for a better understanding of how human activities affect walruses and their habitats,” said Melanie Lancaster, Arctic species lead at WWF’s Arctic Programme”.
Although walruses range across international borders across the Arctic, countries with walrus populations do not have cooperative conservation strategies for the species. The State of Circumpolar Walrus Populations is a major step toward such a plan, as it compiles global knowledge on walrus populations, threats, management, and gaps in current understanding of walruses.
“The report shows that we don’t have information on where important feeding and resting areas are for some walrus populations, what their seasonal movements are, or how much exchange there is between populations,” says Lancaster. “Having this information will help to understand the impacts of climate change, as well as industrial activities like offshore oil and gas development and shipping.”
Walruses depend on sea ice as a platform for feeding and resting, and a warming Arctic is disrupting their normal patterns. In the past decade, decreased sea ice has forced abnormally large numbers of walruses ashore on the coasts of Russia and Alaska. These “haulouts” of up to 35,000 individuals can be deadly, particularly for smaller walruses that are crushed in stampedes that can be provoked by disturbances.
The Arctic is particularly vulnerable to extreme heat - the region is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world. 2016 will be the hottest year on record, and July and August 2016 are tied as the hottest months ever recorded globally.