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Atlantic walrus

WWF Russia expedition: study of walruses’ food base in the Pechora Sea

What threatens walruses?

Atlantic walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) is a unique species of the Barents Sea ecoregion. These pinnipeds are listed in the Red Book of the Russian Federation. In summer and autumn, mammals gather on shore rookeries, and in winter and spring live on ice, where females bear offsprings. According to scientists, walruses are one of the most vulnerable inhabitants of the Russian Arctic, and every year the danger of their disappearance only increases.

Main threats to Atlantic walruses are: the growing activity of oil companies, and a sharp reduction of ice cover in the Arctic due to climate change. The shelf is going to be explored by new oil and gas companies, and according to ecologists, the Atlantic walruses are most vulnerable to oil and gas industry expansion.

At the same time, experts are concerned about the lack of information about the population. Only an approximate number of walrus grouping of the Pechora Sea is known, as well as the location of some rookeries. Walruses’ movements during the year and the interconnection of various walrus groups remain unknown. Before developing measures to preserve this species, it is necessary to thoroughly investigate it.

Atlantic walrus. Franz Josef Land © Yuri Lebedev WWF Russia
Atlantic walrus on Spitsbergen Island, Norway © Mikhail Cherkasov
Walruses near Vaygach Island © Anton Taybaray
Atlantic walrus. The Laptev Sea © Aleksey Ebel

What does the WWF do to save walrus population?

An Expert Advisory Group has been established in 2009 to conserve and study walruses of the southeast Barents Sea and the adjacent water areas, which brought together the best experts in this field. From this time, the population is actively studied. Here are just some of the successes of the scientists:

  • An aerial survey of a part of the Pechora Sea water area has been carried out in spring. Information of the distribution of walruses on ice was obtained, and an approximate estimate was given of their numbers. It is on the ice in the spring that walruses bear their offsprings, so they are most vulnerable to anthropogenic influences.
  • The work to mark walruses with satellite transmitters has been established. Now specialists track walruses’ movements for several months.
  • Photo traps have been installed in a coastal rookery on the Lyamchin Peninsula (Vaygach Island). Based on the results of the survey complete information on the timing of the formation of this rookery has been obtained for the first time.
  • A large sample of biological material from walruses of the Pechora Sea has been collected for the first time. A genetic analysis of DNA samples was carried out, which showed that in the rookery on Vaygach Island gather animals that belong to the same population grouping. The researchers now need to determine the relationship of walruses of the Pechora Sea with the animals inhabiting the Franz Josef Land and Spitsbergen.
  • A unique project for the survey of rookeries with high-resolution satellites has been carried out. It was implemented with the support of WWF and ScanEx. Snapshots allow the estimation of the number of walruses of rookeries even in the most inaccessible areas.

Detailed results of four years of research are collected in a joint publication of WWF and the Council for Marine Mammals.

Studies of the Pechora Sea walrus population continue. During the followin expedition in 2016, scientists studied feeding habits of pinnipeds. Samples of benthos have been extracted from the bottom of the sea — benthic organisms, mollusks and crustaceans. Later they were sent to the laboratory for toxicological analysis and detailed study. Using GNOM telemetric underwater vehicle scientists made a video of the bottom at 15 points.

In addition, WWF is conducting a direct dialogue with representatives of the oil and gas industry, urging them to act on the principle of «measure thrice and cut once». The main idea is that it is necessary to conduct research and monitor the inhabitants of places where hydrocarbon production is only planned. And based on the data received, adjust the plans so that not to reap the bitter fruits later.

As a result of a dialogue with WWF, Yamal SPG has adopted a corporate strategy aimed to preserve Atlantic walruses for the first time in Russia. The document will help to protect marine mammals from man-made threats and allow the company to systematize data on the status and location of the population. This is the first and important step of extracting companies on the way to corporate responsibility for Arctic walrus conservation.

WWF established an international holiday in 2007 to attract the attention of as many people as possible to the problems of studying and preserving this unique species — the Walrus Day. Every year it only grows in popularity and is celebrated far beyond our country.