Point Lay sees earliest walrus haul out ever

A Pacific walrus bull. Due to declining sea ice, walrus started hauling out in 2007. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo by Joel Garlich-Miller)

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today confirmed that walrus are again gathering on the shores of a barrier island near the Native Village of Point Lay.

It’s the earliest walrus haul-out since it began happening in 2007, according to the federal agency.

The haul-outs are associated with declining sea ice due to climate change. This summer, the Chukchi Sea saw the lowest ice extent on record for July, according to the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy.

When the sea ice is low, the walrus instead come to shore to rest.

Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Andrea Medeiros said a Point Lay resident spotted the walruses while boating, and estimated there are several thousand of the animals on the island. Medeiros said an official count won’t happen until September at the earliest.

One of the biggest concerns with the haul outs is that walrus are skittish onshore, so disturbances can be dangerous for them.

“If they hear a plane, they are going to likely react and stampede into the water, which leads to the deaths of animals, frequently,” Medeiros said.

Fish and Wildlife, the Eskimo Walrus Commission and the Native Village of Point Lay are sending out notices to pilots, mariners and others in the area to keep a safe distance from the animals to minimize disturbance.

Members of the public with questions about the haul out can call 1-800-362-5148.

Elizabeth Harball is a reporter with Alaska's Energy Desk, covering Alaska’s oil and gas industry and environmental policy. She is a contributor to the Energy Desk’s Midnight Oil podcast series. Before moving to Alaska in 2016, Harball worked at E&E News in Washington, D.C., where she covered federal and state climate change policy. Originally from Kalispell, Montana, Harball is a graduate of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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