Background and Behavior Awareness

Walruses are highly sensitive to boats, aircraft, and human presence. Noises, smells, and sights may elicit a flight reaction. When hauled out in dense groups onto ice or land, calves and yearlings are particularly susceptible to being crushed during disturbance events that cause the herd to panic and stampede at these large haulouts. Trampling deaths associated with haulout disturbance are among the largest known sources of natural mortality for walruses.  Frequent or prolonged disturbances may even result in long-term haulout abandonment.

Harassing or Disturbing Walruses is Illegal

Harassment or pursuit of marine mammals is prohibited by law. Never attempt to herd, chase, or separate groups of walruses. Pacific walruses are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA) and any human activity, including operating an aircraft, vehicle, or boat, or approaching on foot, in a manner which results in harassing walruses is prohibited. Harassment includes any act which has the potential to injure or disturb walruses and includes acts which disrupt behavioral patterns including, but not limited to migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering. Some exceptions are made for authorized scientific research and subsistence harvest by Alaska Natives.

You are responsible for ensuring that your actions do not cause a change in their behavior. Since individual animal's reactions will vary, carefully observe animals and leave the vicinity if you observe any of the following behaviors (generally listed in increasing intensity of disturbance):

  • Several individuals raising their heads simultaneously
  • Increased vocalizations
  • Increased interactions with other animals
  • Aggressive behavior by animals towards the disturbance
  • Movement towards the water
  • Hurried entry into the water

 

GUIDELINES FOR LAND-BASED APPROACHES AND VIEWING

Approach walruses hauled out on land unobtrusively. Viewing should be accomplished without the animal's awareness of your presence. You may not be the only one that day that has approached these same animals, please be aware that increasing levels of disturbance may occur with each successive visit. Using binoculars and telephoto lenses to view or photograph animals from a safe distance can help ensure that animals are not disturbed. Avoid detection by sight, smell or sound:

  • Don't approach on motorized vehicles. Park vehicles out of sight at least 0.5 mile away and approach by foot, moving slowly and staying hidden behind natural cover.
  • Approach viewing areas quietly, avoid conversation, noisy movements and loose clothing that may flap in the wind.
  • Approach from downwind; avoid smoking and use of scented and fragrant products.
  • Keep a low profile and avoid being backlit against skylines, or other light backgrounds.
  • Do not wear brightly colored clothes.

 

GUIDELINES FOR MARINE VESSELS

Walruses that are swimming or hauled out on land or ice are sensitive to boats. Your vessel may not be the only one that day that has interacted with a particular group of walruses - please be aware that increasing levels of disturbance may occur with each successive interaction. Vessels traveling in a predictable manner appear to be less disturbing to swimming walruses. Avoid excessive speed or sudden changes in speed or direction when approaching or departing walrus haulout areas.

Walruses in the water can be disturbed by underwater sounds produced by a vessel's engines and propellers. Cautiously move away from the animals if you observe any of the following behaviors:

  • Rapid changes in direction or swimming speed
  • Erratic swimming patterns
  • Grouping up and “head bobbing” to investigate the source of the disturbance
  • Escape tactics such as prolonged diving, underwater exhalation, underwater course changes, or rapid swimming at the surface
  • Females attempting to shield a calf with her body or by her movements

Marine motor vessels should maintain a separation buffer from walruses hauled out on land or ice to avoid disturbance. Mariners should assume that known walrus haulouts will be occupied.

  • Vessels less than 50 feet in length should remain at least 0.5 nautical miles away from a walrus haulout.
  • Vessels 50 feet or more but less than 100 feet in length should remain at least 1 nautical mile away from a walrus haulout.
  • Vessels 100 feet or more in length should remain at least 3 nautical miles away from a walrus haulout.
  • All vessels should refrain from anchoring or conducting tendering or fishing operations within 3 nautical miles of a walrus haulout.

Sound carries a long way across the water and often reverberates off cliffs and bluffs adjacent to walrus haulouts amplifying the level of noise. Reduce noise levels near haulouts. Avoid sudden changes in engine noise, using loud speakers, loud deck equipment or other operations that produce noise when in the vicinity of walrus haulouts.

Vessel operators should take every precaution to avoid harassment of concentrations of feeding or swimming walruses. Vessels should reduce speed and maintain a minimum 0.5 - nautical mile exclusion zone around feeding walruses. Vessels may not be operated in such a way as to separate members of a group of walruses from other members of the group. When weather conditions require, such as when visibility drops, vessels should adjust speed accordingly to avoid the likelihood of injury to walruses. Harassment or pursuit of marine mammals is prohibited by law. Never attempt to herd, chase, or separate groups of walruses.

Bristol Bay specifics: There are five regularly used walrus haulouts in Bristol Bay, located at Round Island and Hagemeister Islands and Capes Peirce, Newenham, and Seniavin. During the months of May through December, walruses may be encountered in the water and resting on land in these areas. Round Island is part of the State of Alaska Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary and has developed regulations specific to state waters in that area. The guidelines listed here do not supersede or amend the regulations adopted by the State of Alaska for Round Island and mariners need to make themselves aware of those regulations when in the vicinity of the Sanctuary. Mariners should note that state waters (0 – 3 nautical miles) around Round Island, within the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary are closed to all access without prior authorization under state regulations.

 

GUIDELINES FOR AIRCRAFT AND DRONES 

Walruses are particularly sensitive to changes in engine noise and are more likely to stampede off beaches when aircraft turn or fly overhead. Aerial photography of walruses from manned aircraft or unmanned aircraft systems (drones) poses a high potential for disturbance and is specifically discouraged. To help prevent disturbances, please follow these general guidelines when operating aircraft near walrus herds along the coast:

  • Pilots of single engine manned aircraft and UAS devices should not knowingly fly over or fly within 0.5 mile of walruses hauled out on land or ice to avoid causing a disturbance. If weather or aircraft safety require flight operations within 0.5 mile of walruses, aircrafts should maintain a 2000’ minimum altitude.
  • Pilots of helicopters and multi-engine aircraft should not knowingly fly over or fly within 1 mile of walruses hauled out on land or ice to avoid causing a disturbance. If weather or aircraft safety require flight operations within 1 mile of a haulout site, helicopters and multi-engine aircraft should maintain a 3000’ minimum altitude.
  • Landings, take-offs, and taxiing should not occur within 0.5 mile of hauled out walruses for single engine aircraft or within 1 mile for multiple engine aircraft and helicopters. Please be aware that some locations have prohibitions on landing and takeoffs, check with the applicable land manager.
  • Avoid unnecessary circling or turning near walruses hauled out on land or ice.
  • Please be aware that some locations have stricter recommendations (such as Round Island within the Walrus Islands State Game Sanctuary). Pilots are requested to maintain a minimum altitude of 5,000 feet above ground level within a 3 mile radius of Round Island (58° 36' N. 159° 58' W.). Access to Round Island or adjacent waters requires written permission from Alaska Department of Fish and Game (please check with them for additional restrictions).

If aircraft safety requires flight operations below these recommended altitudes, please pass inland or seaward (within safe gliding distance to shore) of the haulout site at the greatest lateral distance manageable for safe operation of the aircraft (a minimum of 1 mile if possible).

 

Please note these are only guidelines, and may not prevent disturbances in all situations. You are responsible for your actions and operating your aircraft or marine vessel in a manner which does not cause disturbance or violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

For more information, please contact Marine Mammal Management: (800) 362-5148

To report incidences of harassment, injury, or potential wasteful harvest please contact our Office of Law Enforcement: (877) 535-1795 or (800) 858-7621