Will new walrus haul out interrupt Bristol Bay fishing?

Jun 2, 2016

ADF&G says it will be up to the fishermen to avoid problems with the walrus hauling out near Ugashik north line this season, but for now, it's business-as-usual.

Photo taken by US Fish and Wildlife Service of walrus hauled out at Cape Grieg, just north of the Ugashik fishing district line, earlier this spring.
Credit US Fish and Wildlife Service

This link has details on the guidelines for vessels near walrus.

The new walrus haul out at Cape Greig in Bristol Bay could create some problems for the Ugashik and Egegik salmon fishing districts. But right now the Department of Fish and Game says they’ll start the fishery business-as-usual.

Audio transcript: The new haul out was spotted this spring, first by residents flying over the north coast of the Alaska Peninsula. It was confirmed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. No one is sure yet why the walrus are there, but hope that they might go elsewhere is running thin.

"I’ve seen them anywhere from 300 to 2000 on the beach at Cape Grieg,” said Daniel Peppin, a wildlife biologist and pilot with the Alaska Peninsula/Becharof NWR. Peppin has been keeping an eye on them by air this spring. “I mean, it’s anybody’s guess how long they’re going to be there.”

On a flight last week he counted 1500.

While a new, more accessible walrus haul out might be welcome by some, that spot is awfully close to the boundaries of the Ugashik commercial fishing district. The Dept. of Fish and Game area management biologist for Ugashik and Egegik is Paul Salomone has been looking at pictures of the haul out over the past month or so.

"There’s a bluff right on the north line of Ugashik, and it seems to be towards the north end of it," said Salmone. "My best estimate of it, at this point, there about a half mile north of the north line."

That could be a problem in one of the busiest, most crowded fisheries in the state. Last July, when the fishing in Ugashik got hot, there were over 300 Bristol Bay drift permits registered to fish there. Just north of that district, even more fishermen keep their nets wet in the Egegik district. With tenders and other transiting vessels, the amount of traffic near the haul out increases the concern for the safety of those walrus hauling out near the line and feeding wherever it is they feed. Walrus are protected from disturbance by the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

There are guidelines published by the US Fish and Wildlife Service concerning how close vessels can come to haul outs, what operations are not allowed nearby, and how much sound can be generated. If the fleet familiarizes and follows those rules, Salmone believes the fishing should not be interrupted. 

"As of right now, we’re still planning on business-as-usual. We’re not planning on making any changes to the way we approach the season at this point," he said, adding a big caveat concerning enforcement of those federal rules. "We are putting a lot of the onus on the fishermen.”

The consequences of fishing boats triggering a stampede or walrus showing up dead from obvious fishing related causes could be severe, Salomone warned. He said he’s hoping it’s a non-issue.

The federal government has jurisdiction over enforcement to protect the mammals. Commercial fishing in the district opened Wednesday.

Reach the author at dave@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281.