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Consultation Workbook on the addition of the Atlantic Walrus to the SARA List as a species of Special Concern

Information About The Population

Atlantic Walrus

Status: Special Concern

Last examined by COSEWIC:April 2006

Biology

The Atlantic walrus, Odobenus rosmarus rosmarus, is a large, gregarious marine mammal with upper canine teeth that grow into long tusks. Adult males are larger than females; males grow to about 315 cm (~1100 kg) and females to about 277 cm (~800 kg). At birth Atlantic walrus are about 120 cm long and weigh about 55 kg.

Walrus haul out on ice or land, sometimes in large herds. Females mature at 5 to10 years and give birth to a single calf about once every three years. Males mature at 7 to 13 years. The mating season is February-March and calves are born the following May-June after an active gestation of 11 months. Life span may be more than 35 years.

Walrus feed mostly on bottom-dwelling organisms such as clams and sea urchins, but are known to occasionally also eat fish, squid and even ringed and bearded seals. Their preferred habitat is shallow water (80 m or less) with bottom substrates that support a productive mollusc community, the reliable presence of open water over these feeding areas and suitable ice or land nearby upon which to haul out.

Atlantic walrus are currently recognized as comprising four extant populations: South and East Hudson Bay, Northern Hudson Bay-Davis Strait, Foxe Basin and Baffin Bay (High Arctic) (Figure 1). A fifth population, the Nova Scotia-Newfoundland-Gulf of St. Lawrence population, is extirpated.

Where are Atlantic walrus found?

The Nova Scotia-Newfoundland-Gulf of St. Lawrence population, now extripated, was known to occur in the waters of the Scotian Shelf, Gulf of St. Lawrence and as far up the St. Lawrence as Rivière-Ouelle (Figure 2).

The South and East Hudson Bay population is found from the OttawaIslands south to the Ekwan Point area of western James Bay. There are local seasonal movements between the rocky sites where animals haul out during the ice-free period and their wintering areas. In both the Belcher and Sleeper archipelagos, walrus are present at the floe edge in winter and move into the islands and onshore in summer. The winter whereabouts of animals that summer along the Ontario coast and whether walrus move between the Ontario coast and the Belcher Islands are unknown.

The Northern Hudson Bay-Davis Strait population is found from Arviat, on the west coast of Hudson Bay, north and east through Hudson Strait to Clyde River on the east coast of Baffin Island and south along the Labrador coast but rarely beyond Hebron-Okak Bay. Seasonal movements are not well documented. Some animals appear to remain year-round moving inshore or offshore in response to changes in ice conditions. Others appear to undertake significant season migrations. It is likely some walrus that spend the summer off east Baffin Island migrate to West Greenland for the winter and there may be population subdivisions within this broad distribution of walrus.

The Foxe Basin population is restricted to the shallow waters of northern Foxe Basin where walrus live year-round. Most seasonal movements are apparently local in response to changing ice conditions.

The Baffin Bay (High Arctic) population is distributed over an area that extends west to Bathurst Island and north to Kane Basin and northwest Greenland. In late spring-early summer, most walrus in this population move westward into the High Arctic islands by way of Lancaster Sound. There is also a westward movement of walrus from Baffin Bay to Jones Sound in August. In fall some walrus migrate eastward out of central Canadian Arctic through Lancaster Sound while others appear to remain in areas of recurring polynyas or thin ice.

How many Atlantic walrus are there?

The Nova Scotia-Newfoundland-Gulf of St. Lawrence population was believed to originally number in the tens of thousands. It was hunted to extirpation by the late 18th century. There has been no evidence of the population’s re-establishment over the past 200 years although there have been occasional sightings in recent decades.

A comprehensive survey of the South and East Hudson Bay population has not been conducted so there is no accurate estimate of population size or trend.

In the 1980s and 1990s the Northern Hudson Bay-Davis Strait population was estimated to number between about 4,850 and 6,000. These estimates, however, are tentative and based on few sightings in a wide geographic area over a long period. Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) conducted summer surveys along southeast Baffin Island in 2005 and 2006 to obtain more recent information on this population; the results are being analyzed now but again will represent only part of the walrus distribution and provide only minimum counts.

An aerial survey conducted in 1989 estimated the Foxe Basin population to consist of 5,500 animals with confidence that the real estimate was between 2700 and 11,200. However, this survey did not correct for submerged animals and did not cover all of northern Foxe Basin. No trend in the population can be determined from the available information.

A comprehensive survey of the Baffin Bay (High Arctic) population has not been conducted. A total of 452 walrus were counted during an aerial survey in 1999. This represents a minimum count for this population.  

Threats to the Atlantic walrus

The Nova Scotia-Newfoundland-Gulf of St. Lawrence population was heavily hunted especially in the 17th and 18th centuries and by the end of the 18th had been extirpated.

The primary current threat to the extant populations of Atlantic walrus is hunting, especially at the southern and northern ends of the species’ current range. Contaminant uptake, industrial development, noise disturbance and climate change are also threats of undetermined severity. The species’ susceptibility to disease is unknown.

COSEWIC Reason for Designation:

Five populations ranging from Nova Scotia to the high Arctic are recognized for management purposes based on geographical distributions, genetics and lead isotope data. Some of the populations appear to be at greater risk than others due to over-hunting, and may be threatened. However, knowledge about population structure is insufficient to assess them separately. The Nova Scotia-Newfoundland-Gulf of St Lawrence population was hunted to extirpation by the late 18th century. Sporadic recent sightings of individuals and small groups in the Gulf of St Lawrence and off Nova Scotia are not considered evidence of re-establishment. The South and East Hudson Bay population is believed to number in the low hundreds, although population size and structure are poorly known. Observations from the late 1930s to the present suggest that numbers declined significantly, but the rate of decline cannot be quantified and it is not known whether the decline is continuing. The small population size suggests it may be vulnerable to disturbances and small increases in hunting effort. The total size of the Northern Hudson Bay-Davis Strait population could be as small as 4,000-6,000 individuals. Its ability to sustain minimum current removals is questionable. Some portion of this population is hunted in Greenland waters. The Foxe Basin population was estimated to be 5,500 in 1989. It is unknown if current exploitation rates are sustainable. Hunting is believed to have reduced the Baffin Bay (High Arctic) population to only a few percent of the number present in 1900. Limited information suggests the current population is small and that a portion of it continues to be hunted at unsustainable levels in the North Water area of Canada and northwest Greenland. However, satellite tracking and genetic information suggest that some animals in this population are resident in the Canadian Archipelago (west Jones Sound and Penny Strait / Lancaster Sound) and are not exposed to over-hunting. Better information is needed on population sizes and composition, seasonal movements, vital rates, and hunting mortality. The biggest threat is over-hunting, particularly on populations that inhabit the southern and northern ends of the species’ current range. The species is near to qualifying for threatened status and requires an effective plan to manage hunting. No Management Plans are currently in place for the species. Although quotas have been set in few communities, it is not known if they are adequate to prevent over-hunting.

What will happen if Atlantic walrus is added to the SARA List?

Adding Atlantic walrus as a Species of Special Concern to the SARA List would result in the development of a management plan, a document to promote conservation of a vulnerable species by establishing specific management or conservation measures.

The Management Plan would be developed jointly by co-management partners and other agencies and individuals with an interest in this population. In areas where walrus are harvested for subsistence, the Plan would assist hunters and trappers organizations to manage the population. Where walrus are not hunted, it would guide non-consumptive activities such as tourism. It is unlikely that any management measures will be required in areas where the walrus is currently extirpated.

The Management Plan could recommend protective measures for walrus, including the following:

  • Designating walrus management zones or habitat protection measures if needed.
  • Developing guidelines to reduce disturbance to walrus from non-consumptive activities such as tourism and shipping if needed.
  • Developing joint management plans for walrus populations that are thought to be shared between Canadaand Greenland so that the combined harvest does not exceed a level that the shared stock is able to support.