A fairly large number of Pacific Walrus have been spotted hauling out a new spot in Bristol Bay.
This spring, pilots and residents who fly frequently over the Alaska Peninsula coast north of Ugashik started noticing walrus hauled out a spot called Cape Grieg. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service was made aware, and though that spot is not on refuge lands, the Alaska Peninsula and Becharof Refuge staff took on the task of looking into it. Manager Susan Alexander was aboard flights last month that verified what residents were saying.
“We have, since early April, seen concentrations of walrus hauled out at Cape Grieg, which as far as we know is a new haul out location for them,” Alexander said on Thursday. “They seem to be coming and going; we’ve seen as many as 2000 and as few as zero.”
Those numbers have led the Fish and Wildlife Service to wonder if Cape Grieg is a temporary spot or something more permanent. The walruses also seemed to have arrived at their Bering Sea haul outs early this year. In the spring and summer, the females and younger walruses follow the ice break up into the Chukchi Sea. It’s the big males that distribute along the other main Bering Sea haul outs in Bristol Bay: Cape Seniavin further southwest on the Peninsula, Capes Pierce and Newenham along the northwest coast, and of course the famous spots in the Walrus Island Sanctuary like Round Island.
“You know, Round Island has been kind of declining for the last several years,” said Jim McCracken, a USFWS supervisory wildlife biologist. “I guess one of the leading thoughts there might be that they’ve been there a long time, and they’ve probably started to deplete the food that’s within range of their swimming and resting capacity. So maybe they’re looking for other places.”
While the US Fish and Wildlife Service is interested in the walruses’ behavior, there’s another reason why staff are monitoring this spot.
“The chief concern is that walruses are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, which makes disturbance of hauled-out walrus illegal,” said Alexander. “So we’re concerned that we need to keep an eye on these guys.”
Cape Grieg is located between Ugashik and Egegik, which is a busy transit spot for marine vessels during the Bristol Bay salmon season. It’s also along common air routes. Planes flying too low and vessels traveling too close can disturb the animals, and even lead to dangerous stampedes.