Fact Sheet
walrus, © Joel Garlich-Miller/USFWS
walrus, © Joel Garlich-Miller/USFWS

Threats to Walruses

Climate Change

The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of anywhere else on Earth. Today the biggest threat facing walruses is the loss of stable sea ice due to climate change. Walruses feed on the ocean floor in the relatively shallow waters of the continental shelf, where the sea ice itself sustains a rich food web. Algae grow in long trailing strands at the edge of the ice and in the nearby waters. These algae are eaten by tiny animals called zooplankton, which in turn feed larger animals. At every step along the way, particles of food and nutrients “rain” down onto the ocean floor, sustaining the massive beds of mollusks and other bottom-dwelling organisms on which walruses feast.

Females will leave their young on the sea ice while they forage, then haul out to nurse their calves. The accelerating retreat of sea ice puts the newborns’ safe haven farther away from the mothers’ food—meaning longer, more exhausting swims for the mothers, and more time alone for the calves.

Oil Spills & Ship Traffic

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. With these conditions come changing sea ice, unpredictable weather, and more vessels making the journey into remote ecosystems that were once inaccessible. Ship traffic through the Bering Strait, for instance, went up by 118% from 2008 to 2012, and officials expect that trend to continue as more of the region’s ice disappears. With more vessels in Arctic waters, as well as a growing interest in oil development in the region, the threat of an oil spill impacting Arctic wildlife seems all but inevitable. Even without the constant threat of a spill, more ships in the Arctic carry their own threats to wildlife, including noise pollution, ship strikes, pollution from ballast water, and entanglement in marine debris. 

What Defenders is Doing to Help

Pushing for Climate Solutions

Because they rely so heavily on sea ice, walruses are feeling the loss of this habitat. While there are many actions each of us can take to combat climate change, we also need to enact wide-reaching policy changes on the state and federal level. Defenders is fighting for national policies that both address the root cause of climate change and protect wildlife like walruses and their habitats from the impacts of a changing climate. 

Building a Response

Though a warming climate is opening more of the Arctic up to oil exploration and ship traffic, increasing the chance of a spill, not all agencies and communities in the region have effective response plans and equipment in place if a spill were to happen. 

Defenders and our partners work with agencies charged with spill response, and with community partners to design and develop marine wildlife spill response training. We work to make sure more local wildlife experts are part of spill drills, plans and spill events, because these experts are key to giving wildlife the best chance to survive. 

As part of this work, we hold local workshops to share scientific and technical information as well as local traditional knowledge about effective marine wildlife spill preparedness and response strategies. The workshops will inform the design and development of a hands-on marine wildlife spill 101 training for local leaders in at-risk communities addressing incident command, hazardous material handling, and spill response training in each of the focal areas of the region. 



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