Activists have again resorted to using documentary film to promote Pacific walrus haulout deaths as contrived “proof” of gruesome climate change impacts even as evidence emerges that walrus numbers are higher than at any other time since the late 1970s. Oops! Busted by facts yet again!
In 2020, a pair of activist Russian filmmakers made a low-budget re-creation of the the enormous Cape Serdtse-Kamen beach walrus haulout scenes from Sir David Attenborough’s Our Planet (see map below), centred on the infamous shack used by visiting biologists and filmmakers (photo above by Maxim Chakilev, courtesy the Smithsonian). In describe this Russian haulout beach in detail in Fallen Icon: Sir David Attenborough and the Walrus Deception.
Location of Cape Serdtse-Kamen on sea ice map from 18 October 2021.
No doubt spurred on by propaganda spread by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) — ensconced in Siberia since 2007 — and funded by The New Yorker magazine, they marketed their Haulout handiwork at film festivals in 2022 as a horrifying, stand-alone message of climate change emergency, now known as global boiling.
Russian biologist Maxim Chakilev, who assisted off-screen in the Our Planet documentary, is featured on-screen in this short film (see below). A biologist movie star, just like his colleague Anatoly Kochnev who starred in the Our Planet “Behind the Scenes” walrus feature!
In an interview with filmmaker Evgenia Arbugaeva in March 2023, she talks about Chakilev’s concern for the walrus [by bold]:
“The biggest concern, of course, is how this animal adapts to the new reality that this has been happening for a long time now. Maxim started his research 10 years ago … And unfortunately, as we know, this process is irreversible. So, there will be a possibility of a shrinking of the population of the animal. I think all biologists that are now working are concerned about the same thing really, of the disappearance of species and what can be done to protect them.”
Quote from The New Yorker (21 November 2022) “Where walruses go when sea ice is gone,” Arbugaeva also revealed [my bold]:
Because it was so warm, there were also a lot of brown bears nearby who hadn’t been hibernating. “They were super aggressive,” she said, “so we were walking as three, always, and that added to this feeling of being trapped.” The bears, and even flocks of birds, would scare the walruses, which would set off a panicked stampede toward the water, leading to tramplings and deaths. “To see walruses dying right in front of me, and I couldn’t help them in any way,” Arbugaeva said, was the most difficult aspect of making the film. “For a few days, a baby walrus was stranded in our hut. It was all beaten up. There was no way to find his mother in the sea of walruses, and we had to leave it alone to die.”
So the climate warriors at InsideClimateNews took over the promotion (1 April 2023) with a headline that would have fit right in with those published in 2019 to promote the Netflix Our Planet documentary series: “Pacific Walruses Fight to Survive in the Rapidly Warming Arctic: The short film “Haulout” forces audiences to confront the horrifying reality of what climate change means for Pacific walruses.”
Quote from InsideClimateNews (21 November 2022), my bold:
The haulout in 2020 lasted for nearly three weeks in total, the longest Chakilev had yet documented in his 10 years of studying it.
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that what you’re watching is not so much a horror movie as a tragedy. The dangerous overcrowding of the haulout is the direct result of climate change, we learn in the closing minutes of the film. Chakilev estimated that there were 100,000 walruses gathered at the haulout’s peak in the fall of 2020. …six hundred walruses died in the 2020 haulout…
Arbugaeva has said that she and her brother hoped to convey to audiences the truth about the walruses’ fate. “We made this film because we wanted to show people what really is happening in the Arctic, and we wanted to make it in the way that is not heavily message-driven or narrated,” she told NPR. “We wanted people to see for themselves that this is the reality that animals in the Arctic are facing, and that we need to do something about it.”
Ah, the truth activists reveal when they admit their motivation!
But note that 100,000 walrus at this haulout in October is not unprecedented: a published database shows similar numbers in 2009 and 2011, and a report by Chakilev himself documented 101,572 animals there in 2017 (Chakilev and Kochnev 2019:384-385). Contrary to Chakilev’s claim that he’d never before seen a haulout that lasted “nearly three weeks,” in 2017 he documented 30,000 to >100,000 walrus over three full weeks, from September 29 to October 19 (21 days) (Chakilev and Kochnev 2019:385). I bet he thought no one would check.
The number of deaths due to stampedes in 2017 were combined in the Chakilev and Kochnev report with those from 2016 (a year with many fewer animals), for a total of 537, which suggests that 300-400 deaths during an especially large haulout season is to be expected and thus 2020 had only a few hundred more deaths, perhaps caused by the stampedes mentioned that were due to the presence of brown bears.
All in all, this propaganda film seems like a desperate, last-ditch attempt to profit from the Netflix falling walrus debacle of 2019 and it is apparent they’ve had to pull similar tricks to do so. But it seems that most media outlets know the public is not likely to buy this nonsense as readily as it did back in 2019.
I played a small but hopefully critical part in this public eye-opening: my popular book (Fallen Icon) about the orchestrated walrus deception (Crockford 2022), and the many news articles by myself and others leading up to it, exposed Attenborough and the entire WWF/Netflix corporate conservation complex in their use of Pacific walrus to advance their narrative which falsely blamed lack of summer sea ice for walrus haulout deaths.
Ironically, earlier this month, the US Fish & Wildlife Service published a new assessment, forced by a lawsuit from the activist organization Center for Biological Diversity. The new estimate reveals that by 2021, walrus numbers had reached almost 260,000 — a level of abundance rivaling record-high numbers documented in the late 1970s.
Latest walrus numbers
William Beatty and colleagues (Beatty et al. 2022:177) surveyed Pacific walrus for five years ending in 2017 and estimated the average total abundance was 257,193 (range 171,00-366,366), which in early August 2023, the US Fish and Wildlife Service reported as the minimum number of walrus at 2021 of 214,008 animals, an apparent marked increase from the minimum population size of 129,000 estimated in 2006. Note that this “minimum” is a value used by US government agencies for management purposes and is based on the total abundance estimate.
Although accurate walrus population estimates are notoriously hard to come by (Crockford 2022), not since the late 1970s have estimates of Pacific walrus been anywhere near this high (Fay et al. 1989:4-6; Garlich-Miller et al. 2011:12). Beginning in 1978, due to outright starvation and subsequent poor calf survival, the population almost certainly declined, although no accurate estimates are available to tell us by how much (Lowry 1985; Fay and Kelly 1980; Garlich-Miller et al. 2011).
This time is quite different. So far.
The 2023 assessment states explicitly (USFWS 2023:53511) that there is no evidence that walrus are currently “food limited.” The fact that walrus are not starving despite this remarkably large population is almost certainly due to abundant food resources fueled by the high primary productivity in the Chukchi Sea that has been a direct result of longer-than-usual ice-free summers since 2003 (Frey et al. 2020, 2022).
While the US Fish and Wildlife Service and their scientists may repeat the required political mantra that walrus face a grim future due to sea ice loss caused by global warming, they have not listed the Pacific walrus as a threatened species (USFWS 2017b):
While walruses use sea ice for a variety of activities, including breeding, birthing, resting and avoiding predators, they have shown an ability to adapt to sea ice loss that was not foreseen when the Service last assessed the species in 2011. [USFWS 2017a]
Walrus die by the hundreds at Cape Serdtse-Kamen in October when haulout sizes on the beach reach 100,000 animals but these conditions only happen if sea ice retreat allows access to the beach at a time when the total population is near its maximum size, as it was by 2017. The scientific literature shows that 600 walrus deaths associated with the haulout of 100,000 in 2020 was only a few hundred more than was documented at the same location, with similar haulout numbers, in 2017. The presence of aggressive brown bears causing stampedes in 2020 may have accounted for the difference in deaths.
Contrary to the messages of doom from the conservation community, less summer sea ice is directly responsible for allowing Pacific walrus numbers to grow higher than the ecosystem could support in the late 1970s. This is an astonishing, good-news phenomenon. However, instead of celebrating the fact that the walrus population has increased by tens of thousands since 2006 and are not threatened with extinction despite the recent loss of sea ice, activists are fixated on a few hundred more walrus deaths due to stampedes on Russian haulouts. This lack of perspective and perverse reasoning is absolutely breathtaking.
Beatty, W.S., Lemons, P.R., Evertt, J.P. et al. 2022. Estimating Pacific walrus abundance and survival with multievent mark-recapture. Marine Ecology Progress Series 697:167-182. pdf here.
Chakilev, M.V. and Kochnev, A.A. 2019. Monitoring results of the Pacific walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens) haulout site at Cape Serdtse-Kamen (Chukchi Sea) in 2016-2017. In, Marine Mammals of the Holarctic, Papers of the Tenth International Conference (29 October-2 November 2018), Volume 1, pg. 381-391. Marine Mammal Council, Moscow. [Russian and English] pdf here.
Crockford, S.J. 2022. Sir David Attenborough and the Walrus Deception. Amazon KDP, Victoria.
Fay, F.H. and Kelly, B.P. 1980. Mass natural mortality of walruses (Odobenus rosmarus) at St. Lawrence Island, Bering Sea, autumn 1978. Arctic 33:226-245. http://www.aina.ucalgary.ca/scripts/minisa.dll/144/proe/proarc/se+arctic,+v.+33,+no.++2,+June+1980,*?COMMANDSEARCH [open access] and PDF
Fay, F.H., Kelly, B.P. and Sease, J.L. 1989. Managing the exploitation of Pacific walruses: a tradegy of delayed response and poor communication. Marine Mammal Science5:1-16. PDF.
Frey, K.E., Comiso, J.C., Cooper, L.W., et al. 2020. Arctic Ocean primary productivity: the response of marine algae to climate warming and sea ice decline. 2020 Arctic Report Card. NOAA. DOI: 10.25923/vtdn-2198 https://arctic.noaa.gov/Report-Card/Report-Card-2020/ArtMID/7975/ArticleID/900/Arctic-Ocean-Primary-Productivity-The-Response-of-Marine-Algae-to-Climate-Warming-and-Sea-Ice-Decline
Frey, K.E., Comiso, J.C., Cooper, L.W., et al. 2022. Arctic Ocean primary productivity: the response of marine algae to climate warming and sea ice decline. 2020 Arctic Report Card. NOAA. DOI: 10.25923/Oje1-te61 https://arctic.noaa.gov/Report-Card/Report-Card-2022/Arctic-Ocean-Primary-Productivity-The-Response-of-Marine-Algae-to-Climate-Warming-and-Sea-Ice-Decline
Lowry, L. 1985. “Pacific Walrus – Boom or Bust?” Alaska Fish & Game Magazine July/August: 2-5. pdf here.
MacCracken, J.G., Beatty, W.S., Garlich-Miller, J.L., Kissling, M.L and Snyder, J.A. 2017. Final Species Status Assessment for the Pacific Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus divergens), May 2017 (Version 1.0). US Fish & Wildlife Service, Anchorage, AK. Pdf here (8.6 mb).
USFWS. 2017a. ‘After Comprehensive Review, Service Determines Pacific Walrus Does Not Require Endangered Species Act Protection’. US Fish and Wildlife Service Press Release, 4 October.
USFWS. 2017b. ‘Endangered and threatened wildlife and plants; 12-month findings on petitions to list 25 species as endangered or threatened species’. Federal Register 82(192):46618-46645.
USFWS. 2023. Stock assessment reports for the Pacific walrus stock and three northern sea otter stocks in Alaska, Docket No. FWS-R7-ES-2022-0155. Federal Register 88(151):53510-53514. Pdf here.