The walruses in the Canadian Arctic are at risk of extinction.
That’s the conclusion announced Monday by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC), which is calling for both Atlantic walrus populations in Canada’s Eastern Arctic to be listed as of “special concern” under the federal Species at Risk Act.
This isn’t the first time an Atlantic walrus population has been threatened, explained Hal Whitehead, a professor of biology at Dalhousie University in Halifax and a COSEWIC member. Around 1850, a species of walrus living off the coast of Canada’s Atlantic provinces went extinct, in large part due to hunting.
Today, the government of Canada says there may be up to several thousand Atlantic walruses living in Eastern Arctic waters. COSEWIC first deemed these animals to be of “special concern” in 2006, but the federal government of the day never added the Atlantic walrus to the endangered species listing. Now that COSEWIC has split the surviving walruses into two separate populations, the federal environment minister will face that decision again.
Arctic Deeply spoke with Whitehead about what it means when a species is listed as of “special concern,” what threats are putting the Atlantic walrus at risk in the Arctic today, and what can be done to protect them.
Arctic Deeply: Can you explain what it means that COSEWIC designated the Atlantic walrus as being of special concern?
Hal Whitehead: The first decision was to split the Atlantic walrus in Canada into three designated units, which are separate populations. This hadn’t been done before. Then we assessed the status of each of the designated units.
The three designated units refer to the High Arctic, so Lancaster Sound and North; the Central-Low Arctic, which would be Southern Baffin Island and Hudson Bay, Hudson Strait and Foxe Basin; and the population that used to exist off Nova Scotia, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick and Newfoundland.
Both the High Arctic and the Central-Low Arctic were assessed as special concern, which is the third level of threat recognized under the Species at Risk Act. So it’s a population that isn’t at imminent danger of extinction, but could become so if things don’t go well. The third population, the Maritimes one, was assessed as extinct.
[Special concern] means there has to be a management plan. It doesn’t have the full force that we put into protecting endangered species, but it signals a species, which, as we say, we have to have special concern for.
Arctic Deeply: What was the thinking behind separating walruses into these groups?
Whitehead: First, it recognizes what did happen to the walrus in the Maritime provinces.
There are new studies showing that these were really different animals. They were genetically different. They were morphologically different. They were different shapes and sizes, and in fact, they were bigger. They were on a distinct evolutionary path, and they’re gone.
Separating the two Arctic populations means that the different threats that are faced, and the different environments of the High Arctic versus the Central and Low Arctic, can be taken into consideration as we try and protect them.
Arctic Deeply: What are the greatest threats to the Atlantic walruses today?
Whitehead: Traditionally, the great threat walruses faced was from human hunting, and especially commercial hunting. The records suggest that the catch rates in Canada have gone down over the last decade or two, which should suggest that that’s good for the walrus.
But these animals migrate across to West Greenland, where they are hunted at a much higher rate, and there’s concern about the combined effects of this quite heavy hunt in Greenland, with what’s going on in Canada.
Certainly, the Inuit, and also the scientists who study walrus, are more concerned at the moment by the increasing commercialization of the Arctic because walruses are touchy creatures: they can be disturbed easily.
So if you have shipping, aircraft [and] tourists going into the areas that they use, they may abandon those areas, and it’s bad for their population.
Arctic Deeply: Why are walruses so sensitive to those changes?
Whitehead: These animals need to haul out a fair bit of the day on ice or land, and when they do this, they’re vulnerable to predation, especially by polar bears, but traditionally by humans as well.
If they detect a consistent threat in a particular place, they’ll just abandon it and leave. Inuit describe them leaving the areas where they are most heavily exposed to human hunting and human presence.
Arctic Deeply: How important are walruses for Inuit communities in the Arctic, and what would it mean for them if the species’ numbers drop dramatically?
Whitehead: Walrus traditionally had a large role in Inuit culture, and they still do.
An important use of the walrus – it’s not totally new, but it’s becoming more important – is that carving walrus tusks brings a fair amount of income to the Inuit people in these remote communities where there are not many other ways to make a living. It’s also a way to express their culture through the arts.
Arctic Deeply: What makes the walrus so important to the Arctic region as a whole?
Whitehead: They’re very distinctive animals; there’s nothing like a walrus.
It’s 15 million years or more of evolutionary history that separates them from any of the other seals or sea lions. They are really distinctive in all kinds of ways — their tusks; they sing songs; they’re the only pinniped [seals, sea lions, walruses] that nurse their young in the water.
The walrus takes the calf with it into the water and suckles it, and that’s likely to set up a much more complex social system than you’ll typically find in any of the other seals and sea lions.
They’re also an important link in the food chain. They eat these shellfish in sunny, shallow waters, and there’s a lot of shellfish in these waters. Then they themselves provide food to polar bears and humans.
Arctic Deeply: Are walruses also vulnerable to changes to their habitat caused by the effects of climate change?
Whitehead: They need these shallow waters … and they need to have nearby somewhere they can haul out, so they need to have ice or bits of land they can climb out on to rest. Generally, if they’re hauling out on land, they like to do it on an island, not on the mainland. The changes in the Arctic again will affect that.
So for instance, places where there was ice are now becoming more ice-free [and] as sea level changes, that affects what are islands and what aren’t islands. Also there is a concern that as oceans become more acidic, that will affect their food.
But I think at least over the next generation or two of walruses – their generations span 20-odd years – the main concern is that the changes in climate will change human [behavior] in the Arctic. For instance, putting these big ships through, increasing levels of tourism, and so on.
Arctic Deeply: Is there anything that can be learned from the extinction of Maritime walruses in the 1800s to address today’s concerns?
Whitehead: The ones off the Atlantic provinces went extinct about 1850. They haven’t come back, even though there are walruses up in the Arctic.
That indicates that if we mess things up – if we put in this big shipping route and that removes the walruses’ [access to] Foxe Basin, which is currently the best place for them in Canada – we can’t expect them to come back from somewhere else.
Arctic Deeply: So what can be done?
Whitehead: I think [effort] should be put into management of the different threats. The threat from hunting is, we think, reducing, at least in Canadian waters.
It does suggest that things need to be coordinated with Greenland, because we do now know that the walruses frequently cross over from Greenland, in the High Arctic and the Central Arctic.
There also needs to be a lot of thought about how we manage increased shipping in the Arctic, and increased tourism in the Arctic. We in COSEWIC will be keeping an eye on it, and if things look bad, we will reassess it, and it may move up a notch.
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