Two private pilots have been fined for disturbing walruses hauled out near Point Lay on the Chukchi Sea coast in September 2017, in violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said this week the case had been closed.
Residents reported seeing two small aircraft flying low near the haulout. The aircraft were too close to the animals, locals said, and appeared to be circling the herd.
Every year, Pacific walruses haul out on a barrier island across from the Point Lay townsite. The herd can comprise tens of thousands of individuals.
In 2017, the herd formed its earliest haulout on record beginning Aug. 3. It’s not uncommon for tourists and other outsiders to approach the community once the haulout begins and try to get boat rides or pay for excursions to see the animals.
However, locals say, they typically refuse these types of requests because the walruses are very sensitive to human contact. Point Lay has worked hard to protect the herd by discouraging contact and intrusive viewing.
The year in question, the aircraft were not only spotted by locals but caught on camera, which helped lead to the pilots’ citations.
"Cameras placed in partnership with the landowner Cully Corp. and used to monitor the haulout captured time-stamped photos of the aircraft flying at low altitude near the walruses and the walruses leaving the beach in response,” the Fish and Wildlife Service noted in a Tuesday statement. "Special agents … were able to identify the aircraft and the pilots involved.”
The names of the pilots have not been publicly released. The agency said each was fined a total of $3,000 for violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the citations have been paid.
Walruses have a tendency to stampede if they are disturbed by unusual sights, sounds or smells, Fish and Wildlife said.
In September 2017, a total of 64 walruses were found dead at the Point Lay haulout following one such stampede. The carcasses were discovered about a day after the aircraft were flying overhead.
A spokesperson for Fish and Wildlife could not be contacted by deadline to confirm whether the stampede and the aircraft flyovers were ultimately found to be linked. That was considered to be a possibility at the time.
“They’re pretty skittish when they’re on shore and they’re easily disturbed,” Jim MacCracken, program lead for the walrus and sea otter programs at Fish and Wildlife, told the Sounder in 2017. "It doesn’t take much to get one going and it ripples through the herd and they stampede to the water. They run over the little animals and trample them to death or cause serious injury and they die later.”
As before, locals still request that visitors be careful not to disturb the herd when it’s hauled out. The community has worked with Fish and Wildlife for years to prevent such incidents, the agency said.
Visitors and residents are asked to follow guidelines issued by Fish and Wildlife to both pilots and mariners that provide tips on keeping the animals out of harm’s way.