On a boat in the frigid Arctic waters of the Chukchi Sea, crossbow at the ready, Chad Jay goes in search of his quarry: Pacific walrus. The tusked creatures, each weighing about 1,900 pounds, appear through the fog, crowded on expanses of sea ice. Jay and colleagues are here not to kill them, but to learn about these charismatic animals as their habitat rapidly changes. The summer sea ice they rest on and feed from is melting fast and is expected to disappear entirely by 2030. Consequently, open waters in the warming Arctic are making way for unprecedented shipping and offshore oil exploration—possibly in critical habitat for walruses and other Arctic wildlife.

For eight years Jay, a USGS biologist, has been attaching satellite tags—delivered via crossbow—to walruses to track their movements during the summer, when sea ice is at its minimum. Every hour the sensors report where each of the 40 or so tagged creatures is, whether it’s in the water or hauled out, and whether it’s feeding (the tags fall off after six to eight weeks). Jay’s team is particularly interested in walrus habits in the Chukchi, located between the Bering Strait and Beaufort Sea, where oil leases overlap with walrus habitat.

“The behavior we’ve seen since 2007 is quite different from behavior in earlier years,” says Jay. Before 2007, mothers and calves would forage off of the sea ice, which extended over the continental shelf even at its minimum. That meant it was a short dive to eat clams, snails, and other invertebrates on the seafloor. “Now sea ice recedes north over really deep waters, so walruses are forced to swim in search of other sea ice, or haul out in large aggregations on the coast.” On land, where usually males haul out, there may be greater competition for food, and young are sometimes trampled. 

Jay is trying to identify new patterns. “With the tagging, we can see where the important foraging areas are and map where they are in relation to proposed activities from oil and gas exploration and shipping,” he says. “That will be really helpful in terms of establishing policy that reduces the impact of increased activity.”

That increased activity could begin as early as this summer. Shell plans to sink exploratory oil and gas wells in the Chukchi and neighboring Beaufort Sea in July 2012, tapping the estimated 27 billion barrels of oil buried offshore. In October, the Interior Department upheld the validity of leases in the Chukchi that had been challenged by environmental groups, including Audubon. Two months earlier it approved Shell’s exploratory drilling plan in the Beaufort. The final permits to drill are still wending their way through the regulatory agencies.

Shell’s plans are just the beginning—more companies are lining up to drill, and on November 8 Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced plans to expand offshore oil and gas development, including proposed lease sales in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Those sales are scheduled for 2015 and 2016, allowing time for further scientific study and data collection, and longer term planning for spill response preparedness and infrastructure. The proposal suggests that any Arctic lease sales be tailored to protect sensitive environmental resources, and there will be a public comment and environmental reviews before the sales are finalized.

“This five-year program will make available for development more than three-quarters of undiscovered oil and gas resources estimated on the [Outer Continental Shelf], including frontier areas such as the Arctic, where we must proceed cautiously, safely and based on the best science available,” says Secretary Salazar.

More knowledge about the ecosystem is critical. In 2011, a USGS report found that there are scientific gaps in how energy development on the outer continental shelf will affect wildlife. The government should, thus, gather more data about marine life in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and ensure that the most sensitive areas aren’t harmed, concluded a paper released in September by the Pew Environmental Group and the Ocean Conservancy.

“We can make better decisions if we don’t treat the Chukchi as one big place entirely open to drilling,” says Henry Huntington, science director of Pew’s Arctic program. He’d like to see the most important areas taken off the list of places open to exploration. While noise disturbances from drilling activities are bad enough, Huntington says an oil spill could be devastating, given how remote the waters are. “With the Gulf spill, there were ports, highways, [and] airports nearby, and responding to it was still hugely challenging. In the Chukchi, there are zero roads [and] little infrastructure to help mount a sizeable effort,” he says. “And, god forbid, what would happen if there were a spill near the end of the drilling season, with daylight rapidly fading and sea ice about to start forming?”

Shipping routes are another concern. “That traffic would be transiting through areas where not just walruses occur, but other Arctic marine animals tied to sea ice like bowhead whales, bearded seals, and polar bears,” says Jay.

Audubon Alaska is among those groups identifying biologically important areas in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The group created an atlas that documents habitat, from where seabirds nest to the migratory paths of bowhead whales, to help inform management policies. Audubon Alaska plans to submit an analysis to the Interior Department on the rich diversity of sea life on the outer continental shelf during the upcoming public comment period concerning leasing for oil and gas exploration. “We learned of some of the places that are very important for certain species, but there’s still so much we don’t know,” says Melanie Smith, Audubon Alaska’s landscape ecologist. “We can’t stop the sea ice from melting, at least not in the immediate future. So the best thing we can do is protect the places we know are important and keep looking [forward].”

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Submit written comments on the draft proposal until January 9, 2012, online here or as letters directed to: J. F. Bennett, Chief, Division of Environmental Assessment, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, 381 Elden Street, Mail Stop 4042, Herndon, VA 20170-4817.

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