Last October, research biologist Tony Fischbach made a startling discovery. Using satellite imagery, Fischbach and his team counted 200,000 Pacific walrus on one Russian beach at Cape Serdtse-Kamen’, bordering the Chukchi Sea.
It suggests that the most recent population estimate, which measured about 260,000 Pacific walrus in the world, may have been an undercount.
A year ago, Fischbach would have been able to quickly confirm the finding with his Russian colleagues. But since the U.S. severed many research ties with Russia at the start of the Ukraine invasion, he doesn’t know when that will happen.
Fischbach studies walrus populations for the U.S. Geological Survey, a federal agency that studies natural resources and the hazards that threaten them.
For decades, stretching back to the Cold War, Russian and American scientists have been close partners on Pacific walrus research. U.S. and Soviet researchers began flying joint aerial surveys to count the animals in 1975.
“Even during my career — almost 30 years — there are people I’ve worked with the entire time,” said Fischbach. “They’ve been on ships with us shoulder to shoulder working closely together. We gathered data together, we published it together, that’s been our tradition.”
Walrus are an important subsistence animal for coastal Bering Sea communities. But as climate change speeds sea ice loss, the habitats and migration patterns of these massive marine mammals are changing in new and unpredictable ways.
But walrus don’t recognize international borders. And after Fischbach and his American colleagues made their exciting population discovery last year, it’s been hard to move the research forward without Russian input.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, the U.S. imposed sanctions and began to cut off government funding and research relationships with Russian government-affiliated research institutions.
As a result, Fischbach, a federal employee, has had no communication with his colleagues across the Bering Strait.
“We don’t want them to be put in any danger for communicating with Americans. And due to our sanctions, we also need to step back and not have direct communication,” he said.
There is a caveat to the count that Fischbach needs his Russian colleagues to clear up. The 200,000 estimate relied on walrus density measurements made in Alaska — that is, how closely the walrus pack together when they haul out on shore.
Fischbach said they won’t know their measurement is correct until Russian scientists publish their own density data and confirm Fischbach’s team accurately interpreted the satellite images.
“Our approach is to continue doing what we can and hope that they can do what they can,” Fischbach said. “We’ll publish our findings and our data. They can access that, they can publish their findings and their data. And we can move our science forward.”
This new format for scientific progress is like playing a long-distance game of “telephone” through formally published findings.
The strained relationship between Russia and the U.S. has also slowed research at the university level.
Vladimir Romanovsky, a Russian-born permafrost scientist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, said increased tension with the outside world has made it riskier for Russian scientists to work with foreign agencies. It’s a tricky path to navigate, he said, because the government also wants international recognition for their science.
“On the one hand, they push [Russian scientists] to work with Western scientists and publish in Western literature. But on the other hand, if you’re doing it, you always have a chance to get in trouble,” Romanovsky said. “That’s Russia.”
Romanovsky said Russian scientists who accept funding from abroad also risk being labeled a “foreign agent” by their government.
“Which is very serious in Russia. You can go to jail for that,” Romanovsky said.
Universities aren’t subject to the same sanctions that federal agencies like USGS are, so Romanovsky can still communicate virtually with his Russian colleagues. But meeting in-person has proved difficult as the international scientific community has moved to exclude Russia from conferences in the last year.
Romanovsky said while it’s still possible to continue ongoing projects with his Russian colleagues, starting any new collaborations will be difficult.
“It’s hurting, not immediate right now. But [in] the future, definitely, there is much more problems with the future,” he said.
Romanovsky wants to bring some of his colleagues to Alaska for a research visit in the fall, but he said getting them visas will be nearly impossible.
Meanwhile Fischbach is waiting to see if his Russian colleagues confirm the giant walrus count with their own scientific paper. There’s no way to know when the publication is coming, but he said he trusts they’re working on it.