USFWS uses Russian vessel to count Bering and Chukchi Sea walrus
Fri, 06/09/2017 - 2:47pm admin
By Maisie Thomas
The Russian research vessel Professor Multanovskiy was in Nome from May 31 to June 1. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service chartered the vessel to conduct a research cruise aimed at estimating population numbers of Pacific walruses in the Northern Bering and Chukchi Seas.
Patrick Lemons, marine mammals management chief with USFWS, said that USFWS used a Russian vessel in order to be able to count walrus in the Russian portion of the Chukchi Sea. According to Lemons, there are about nine Americans on the boat, including Clarence Irrigoo of Gambell, as well as a translator and around 11 Russian researchers. Along with surveying the population size, researchers are also taking small skin samples, or biopsies, in order to gain information on age and sex of the walrus.
Jim MacCracken, supervisory wildlife biologist for walrus and sea otter with USFWS Marine Mammals Management, told The Nome Nugget that the trip to the Northern Bering and Chukchi Seas is part of a project that began four years ago. The purpose of the research is to gage the size of the walrus population as well as to develop estimates of survival and reproduction rates, which is why the age and sex of the walrus are important.
According to MacCracken, the group will be “chasing the ice and walrus” so it is hard to know exactly where they will be going, but Nome is the only stop on the trip. MacCracken said the researchers will be traveling for about a month, but will end earlier if they collect a sufficient amount of samples.
Pertinent to subsistence hunters is the potential listing of Pacific walrus under the Endangered Species Act. Since the decision will be made later this year, the information gathered during this summer’s study will not impact the listing Lemons said, as the results will not be analyzed in time. However, research from the past four years of the study has been taken into consideration.
Vera Metcalf, Director of Kawerak’s Eskimo Walrus Commission, said the EWC’s role in the study is to assure that Native hunters, such as Irrigoo, are included. Metcalf also said it is important for the results to be reported back to the EWC’s member communities.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been a part of the study for the past two years, but according to Lori Quakenbush with the ADF&G Arctic Marine Mammal Program, they are not involved in the research this year. From 2013 through 2015, Lemons said that researchers from USFWS, ADF&G and the U.S. Geological Survey tagged walrus with satellite tags to track their movement and haulout behavior. However, that portion of the study has ended and now the focus is on population size.
After this year, USFWS will “take a step back” to analyze their findings, Lemons said. Funding dependent, the study may start again in 2019 or 2020.