To list or not to list. The battle continues over the Pacific walrus.

October 19, 2017

walrus face Public domain photo via Pixabay

A legal battle over whether the Pacific walrus deserves federal protection continues to brew.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list the Pacific walrus as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act despite the ongoing loss of sea ice which walrus use for breeding, birthing, resting and other activities. The agency determined that the walrus population “appears stable, and the species has demonstrated an ability to adapt to changing conditions.”

woman smilingGay Sheffield

The Pacific walrus is found throughout the Bering and Chukchi Seas off Alaska. It’s an important marine mammal for the food security and cultural needs of Alaska Natives, particularly in the Bering Strait region where our Nome-based Marine Advisory agent Gay Sheffield resides.

Critics of the decision say the Fish and Wildlife Service has ignored a wealth of science information indicating that a listing is warranted. The Center for Biological Diversity says it intends to sue the agency and its director for what it describes as an “unlawful, politically motivated decision” that deprives the walrus of “needed protections in the face of climate change and melting sea ice and leaves the species at serious risk of extinction.”

Nome’s public radio station invited Sheffield to its studios to discuss the recent decision, her work with marine mammals, seabirds and other species in the region, and a new guide she’s created on the do’s and don’ts of salvaging marine mammal parts on the beach. Listen to the interview and read excerpts below.

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Edited transcript

(Editor’s note: this interview originally aired on KNOM-FM on October 17, 2017. The following transcript has been slightly modified for online readers.)

Welcome to the KNOM Exchange program. I'm your host Davis Hovey. I’m joined by general manager Margaret DeMaioribus. Today in the studio we have Gay Sheffield. I want to welcome you Gay, and could you give us your official title for our listeners who may not be familiar with you?

Gay: Good morning. My name's Gay Sheffield and I'm with the UAF Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program. My office is over at the Northwest Campus.

Davis: Excellent thank you Gay and thank you so much for being here today. We're going to kick things right off with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision to not list the Pacific walrus under the Endangered Species Act. This was an announcement they made at the beginning of this month. It was supposed to be October 1 or the end of September. It actually came out on October 4. Gay, what was your initial reaction to their decision?

Gay: Well first off I just want to say I don't work for the Fish and Wildlife Service. So I'm speaking to you as myself here. I actually was happily surprised that they did not list the walrus population under the Endangered Species Act.

Davis: Great and continue please. This has been an ongoing thing?

Gay: Right. It's been a long story and I think we're not done yet. This process was initiated back in 2008 when the Center for Biological Diversity started a lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service to list the walrus, and then the complicated process of endangered species review to see whether a population of animals goes on the endangered species list began. There's been a lot of science that's been going on regarding walruses. In the Bering Strait region we've had people that sample the harvest at St Lawrence Island on a regular basis looking at diet and other health parameters like disease and reproduction.

We've had boats in and out of Nome that are picking up people and going out north and south to tag walruses. There's tagging going on where they put the satellite transmitter on the walrus in Chukotka, in the North Slope Borough and Northwest Arctic Borough areas. They've been looking at the best data results and they've determined that the walrus is not in a perilous position. One thing we could use more of, that they could have used more of, was traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) from our region.

The Bering Strait region is all about walruses. It is their home and I haven't seen much of that. In the final outcome they talk about the best science, but I think best science includes the best TEK as well. That's the best science.

Davis: An excellent point, Gay. And as you mentioned it seems like the species is healthy, Pacific walrus. Looking at the language of the Fish and Wildlife Service release—“based on the rigorous evaluation of the best available science which indicates the population appears stable and the species has demonstrated an ability to adapt to changing conditions.” That's language straight from the press release. Of course, the counter argument to that comes from the Center for Biological Diversity. They're concerned that decreasing sea ice coverage will threaten the population of walrus in the future. They also made the same argument for polar bears. How do you feel about their argument or the counter argument?

Gay: This isn't my area of expertise but I think that the loss of sea ice will impact populations. I don't think walrus will go away if there's no ice, but certainly the ice conditions and the subsequent weather conditions we seem to be getting are impacting everybody. They're looking at the health of walruses and there is no indication that there's a problem with them, so the animals are figuring out their new world. I personally don't think that listing an animal under the Endangered Species Act because of a climatic ecological change on the scale that we are seeing is going to change that.

Usually the Endangered Species Act is used for things like, there's a road going to be built and it'll stop the caribou from migrating. Then if you pretend the caribou are an endangered species, then you would say, “hey, you can't build that road. You know these are the last caribou and they're not going to…” It's usually something where you can mitigate the problem. I don't think that listing walrus will make the ice come back.

Davis: Let's turn now to the marine mammal salvage guide which you yourself have published earlier this year. Can you tell me how long you were working on this and why you decided to put it together?

Gay: Thanks Davis. This is the first completed portion. The idea was that there are so many calls that come in or questions being asked regarding marine mammals. We're all marine mammal users one way or the other, whether you're Native or non-Native, in the Bering Strait region. You find something on the beach and you want to keep it. You want to buy a handicraft. You want to use it for food. Everything we do out here has marine mammals in it. And it's very difficult to get an answer when you have a question, when you're trying to be proactive and get it right. It's very difficult because we have two completely different federal agencies that by their own rules can't mix.

So given that, I tried to come up with the types of questions we get. I'm in the process of making a larger, more easy-to-understand guide book that will help us walk through some of the different questions regarding handicrafts, regarding harvest, regarding import-export—all those kind of things. Because I find people are trying to get it right and they just don’t know where to go to get the information. Collecting Dead Marine Mammal Parts While Beachcombing is a two-page handout. It is the quick version. There is a written version that is being approved right now that goes with this but it's longer. The handout is just a really quick guide to help you. We started with: What can you pick up and keep when you’re beachcombing? There are rules regarding Alaska Natives versus non-Natives.

Margaret: That was my next question. Again, we're talking about the marine mammal salvage guide. Speaking for myself, and I don't want to speak for you, Davis, but both of us are a non-Native. So could you list some of those things? If we’re beachcombing, what would we be able to collect and how would we have to register those pieces? What initial information could you share with us?

Gay: Before you're entering the marine mammal world, three things that are great to know are (1) your ethnicity, whether you're Alaska Native or not; (2) when you're talking about beachcombing you have to know land ownership, whose lands are you on. Are they tribal lands, public lands? Are you above high tide? Land ownership is important because some things in the past have been taken that there's just been confusion over. (3) What's the status of the animal? Is it an endangered bowhead? Is it a ringed seal that's not known to be so numerous?

Alaska Natives can collect anything under the Marine Mammal Protection Act for subsistence purposes. There is no animal and no part that's off limits. I think that is good for people to know because I know people ask, should I, can I collect this? Can I use this? Absolutely, for subsistence purposes there is no limit—even the super-highly endangered right whale, which is perhaps only a hundred of those left down in the southern Bering Sea. They thought they were extinct. If one of those ever came up and washed on the beach, absolutely as an Alaska Native you can salvage what you want.

But if you're non-Native absolutely not. If an animal is listed under the Endangered Species Act for the most part it's hands-off for non-Natives.

The National Marine Fisheries Service has jurisdiction over all the seals, all the sea lions, and all the whales. And walrus, polar bear, and sea otter are under U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These two different agencies have a different way they handle their marine mammals. That's why it gets confusing, and that's why it's good to have this little guide. It breaks it down by animal species and which federal agency you have to deal with and the status of the animals. This is all listed here: what Alaska Natives can collect and then what non-Natives can or cannot collect and then where to register your parts.

Margaret: Where is this accessible, Gay? You mentioned that it is being approved for print version.

Gay: The two-page handout is available at the Alaska Sea Grant bookstore online as a free download. I’ve got some at the office and am happy to provide them to whoever would like them in bulk or not.

Davis: At the Sea Grant website, Alaskaseagrant.org, you can find the new bulletin for Alaska beachcombers. There's an article there posted with a link to this salvage guide which is labeled “Collecting dead marine mammal parts while beachcombing.” We're joined in the studio by Gay Sheffield. If you have questions or comments for Gay or myself or Margaret regarding marine mammals, Pacific walrus, the salvage guide, you can call us. And you can always email us.

And one more question for you Gay on this marine mammal salvage guide. There's an exception for E.S.A. listed marine mammals as you mentioned and there's one under the seals. There's a bearded seal listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act yet non-Natives are still allowed to collect parts or salvage parts from the bearded seals. Why is that?

Gay: That's a good question. That is part of the confusion. Why we have this handout is to categorize what you can and cannot do so I'm glad you noticed that. There's also a few animals that are listed under E.S.A. which non-Natives can still collect. So under Fish and Wildlife Service non-Natives can still collect the bones, teeth and ivory of polar bear.

The walrus are not listed so that doesn't change. Polar bear are listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened but non-Natives can still collect bones, teeth and ivory. That's because for that situation under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife there is what's called the 4D rule under the Endangered Species Act down in the weeds of the regulations, and it allows Fish and Wildlife Service to interpret the rules in a way they see fit. And in the case for polar bear they see fit to allow non-Natives to still collect bones, teeth and ivory.

The bearded seal is under the authority of the National Marine Fisheries Service. They are typically more strict. When an animal goes on the endangered species list—for non-Natives that's it, they can't collect it. I am actually not sure why the bearded seal is different. I think the answer I'm waiting on is that the stock of bearded seals has not been listed “depleted.” Again this is going down into the weeds of the process, because we know bearded seals are super numerous and super healthy. But they got listed. I don't see how they can say that there's a problem. So anyway we'll have to get back to you on that one.

Davis: Thank you Gay. There are a lot of complex issues that we are discussing this morning with marine mammals, Pacific walrus and the marine mammal salvage guide. You still have time to call. You're listening to KNOM Exchange.

Margaret: My name is Margaret and I'm here in the studio with Davis and our guest Gay Sheffield with the Marine Advisory Program. Remember Exchange is your show. We want to hear your thoughts, your comments, your questions on anything marine mammals this morning. You can call us here in the studio. We are taking online comments. You can email me directly here in the studio. Gay Sheffield, could you reintroduce yourself if someone is just tuning in this morning, and talk about the work that you're doing in the region?

Gay: Hi my name's Gay Sheffield and I'm with UAF Alaska Sea Grant. My office is over at Northwest Campus.

Davis: And what have you been up to recently, Gay, talking about your travels in the region?

Gay: Lately being the last six years, we've had a number of issues in the Bering Strait region regarding marine wildlife. We've had everything from seals and seabirds that have been oiled that we've responded to.

I'm sorry that Brandon Ahmasuk from Kawerak was not able to make it to the show today because we work hand in hand with the subsistence program over there, the natural resources program. They've been a part of all this as well, so you're just hearing me. It's not all about me. It's actually a partnership also with the Eskimo Walrus Commission and of course all our communities in the region. We've had so many issues. We've had oiled wildlife in 2012, 2013, 2014. We had avian cholera in the birds in 2013.

We've had sick seals going on since 2011—just a whole bunch of things. I often get calls to respond. People have been really great and a lot more proactive about calling in when they see dead animals, or on hunter concern issues. For example, they've harvested a young bearded seal and something has puss or is not right—different color, bad smells, all that and it's really important. Lately, this summer the one thing that's kind of been a chronic problem is that the seabirds have been washing up on the beach. We've had seabirds here in Nome, mostly murres. Starting in June several carcasses were collected and sent to the Fish and Wildlife Service and the agency sent things to experts.

People have called about it, and I recommend people still call us. They can call in to me or they can call in to Brandon Ahmasuk. Brandon is 443-4265, and my [Gay Sheffield’s] number is 434-1149. We can help connect the questions to the right agencies that are 500 miles away.

So seabirds have been a question all summer. We've had reports of several hundred birds at Gambell, a large number at Stebbins. There have been dead seabirds reported again here in Nome in mid August. And also Shishmaref has been dealing with a lot of carcasses. So we're still wanting to make sure we get the reports of that—make sure we get fresh carcasses. Right now the preliminary indications are that the animals have starved. There's also a behavioral component with those birds that was being talked about, in that the birds earlier in the summer were acting drunk, staggering, “pretending” to eat things when there was nothing in front of them—really odd behaviors, which is very unusual, an important clue in trying to figure out what has happened or what is happening with our seabirds. We haven't gotten reports recently so hopefully things have quieted down.

There's also been a stranding event that's been slowly building in numbers on the north shore of the Seward Peninsula. From about mid August to mid September close to forty walruses have washed ashore. We're trying to get some clues on what may have occurred.

Davis: Thank you Gay Sheffield. [gives call in info]

Margaret: You're mentioning about the seabirds washing up. Is there any understanding of why that's happening yet or is it still just being studied right now?

Gay: The bird carcasses from Gambell, Shishmaref, and Nome were sent in. This is all thanks to people on the ground, concerned citizens with health, food security concerns and concerns for the animal. The preliminary results are that the birds were all in bad body condition. These were several species. Mostly fulmars and shearwaters, with other species as well, washed ashore. Their preliminary results are that the birds starved to death. They were in extremely bad body condition. They had very little to no fat, nothing in the stomach. The behavioral component is unusual and other samples are being taken from the birds and run for things like harmful algal blooms. Certain plankton at times can produce neurotoxins that affect the nervous system and then can have an effect on animals. That's something we're just starting to look into.

Davis: Algal blooms are more commonly a thing that occurs in warmer waters. Correct?

Gay: We know that we have had them in this region, all the way up to Barrow. Actually there was a paper that was put out last year where people had looked at the stomach contents and feces of all different types of marine mammals from Barrow down to Southeast Alaska, 12 or 14 different species were looked at and all of the species looked at did have evidence that we do have these neurotoxins in the water. That's not new to the area and that's not new to our animals. When you have what's called a bloom, that's when it really takes off and that's when the plankton really start producing a high level of neurotoxins in a localized area. And you can get too much of it that would harm mammals primarily—it doesn't really affect the fish or clams.

Davis: Just as another example of our changing Bering Sea, and Chukchi and Beaufort Sea and Arctic in general—someone's coming to Nome tonight to talk about that for a Strait Science presentation. Am I correct Gay?

Gay: Rick Thoman with the National Weather Service is coming over tonight and will be available to the public at 6:30 at the UAF Northwest Campus in the science lab.

Davis: If you are listening we hope you've enjoyed this Exchange. We're going to be wrapping up soon and take our final thoughts. We've covered a lot on marine mammals and yet barely scratched the surface as you are well aware and our listeners are well aware. What would you like to say to recap or just mention things that we haven't yet talked about?

Gay: I think any one of these topics could have been discussed much more in length. So hopefully you'll do more marine mammal–related programs in the future because it's really important for our region. I would remind everyone to be vigilant. We have the ice edge about four hundred miles north of Barrow currently and we are entering into our winter wide open. I'm sure we will continue to have novel events and unusual things. The animals seem to be figuring it out although the seabirds are taking a bit of a hit this summer. But other than that there haven't been any reports, at least to myself or to Brandon Ahmasuk regarding starving animals. Nothing like that. We do want to be vigilant for things like the seabird die-off though. The best weapon is to take photos or videos with your cellphone. That has just been phenomenal, getting those pictures and videos. They tell a story that people can't sweep under the carpet. Call in to myself [Gay Sheffield]: 434-1149, or Brandon Ahmasuk at Kawerak: 443-4265. Thank you for having me on the show.

Margaret: Thank you Gay for being here and for wrapping up. We will continue to have more marine mammal conversations with Gay and other guests in the studio. Thank you as well to Vera Metcalf and Brandon Ahmasuk for being a part of all of this.

Gay: Vera Metcalf is the director of the Eskimo Walrus Commission. Her number is 443-4380.

Davis: Thank you one more time to everyone tuned into today's Exchange here on KNOM. We will be back in a couple of weeks, the first Tuesday in November, for a new Exchange, so make sure you stay tuned for that. It's been a pleasure. I'm your host Davis Hovey joined by Margaret DeMaioribus and Gay Sheffield. Thanks for listening.

— By Paula Dobbyn and Sue Keller

Alaska Sea Grant is a statewide marine research, education, and outreach program, and is a partnership between the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Alaska Sea Grant Marine Advisory Program agents provide assistance that helps Alaskans wisely use, conserve, and enjoy marine and coastal resources.