What You Need To Know About Obama and the Walruses

by Tim Donaghy

February 11, 2015

Walrus colony in the Arctic, Spitzbergen, Norway. Walross Kolonie in der Arktis, Spitzbergen, Norwegen.

© Markus Mauthe / Greenpeace

President Obama recently protected 9.8 million acres of the Arctic Ocean from future oil and gas drilling. Thats the good news. The bad news is that he allowed future oil and gas lease sales to go forward in a much larger region of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Whats more, these new protected areas wont stop drilling on existing leases, and Shell Oil has just indicated it hopes to go ahead with drilling on six lease sites in the Chukchi Sea this coming summer.

At times the Arctic can seem harsh and forbidding, but the Iupiat communities of Alaskas North Slope know better. Iupiat leaders have often referred to the Arctic Ocean as their garden because it is the source of their livelihood through subsistence hunting, fishing and whaling. Respecting this heritage, President Obama continued existing protections for whaling grounds near Barrow and Kaktovik, and a 25 mile coastal buffer zone in the Chukchi Sea that is used for subsistence activities by Alaska Natives. The president also set aside a new offshore region known as Hanna Shoal — an extremely biologically productive hotspot that is important habitat and foraging grounds for the Pacific walrus.

It is great that these areas have been protected, but paper boundaries wont keep wildlife from wandering into active drilling areas, and should an oil spill occur, legal protections wont keep these special places safe from destruction. The only way to truly protect the vibrant ecosystems and cultural heritage of the Arctic is to make the whole region off limits to offshore drilling.

Hanna Shoal

Hanna Shoal is a shallow shelf in the Chukchi Sea that it is teeming with marine life. The shoal is a particularly important feeding zone for the Pacific walrus, who journey to the region to forage for clams (their primary food source) on the shallow ocean floor. Hanna Shoal has been the site of recent scientific studies highlighting the importance of this unique region.

The other thing you should know is that Hanna Shoal is right next door to Shells drill sites.


Map of the Oil and Gas Lease Planning Areas. Current OCS leases are represented by orange blocks. The Presidential Withdrawal Area for Hanna Shoal is shown in dark blue, while the deferral zones for subsistence activities are outlined in red or shown in white. Map generated using BOEM’s Interactive Map tool.

The above map shows the Presidents deferred region in blue, which is actually only a part of the larger Hanna Shoal area. Shells drilling sites lie just to the southwest. As important as Hanna Shoal is, walruses are by no means confined to this region. A video produced by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game shows one year of movements of several walruses tagged with satellite transmitters. If you click through to the walrus tracking video, you can see that while walruses do congregate in Hanna Shoal, especially during the months of July and August, the animals range widely and often pass through the drilling zones themselves. In the past, walruses have congregated close to and even entered sections of offshore drilling rigs.

Walruses — along with polar bears, whales and seals — are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and in order to go ahead with drilling this year, Shell will have to obtain permits from the federal government to harass, injure or kill those animals in the course of their activities. Climate change and diminishing summer sea ice are already changing walrus habitat and behavior patterns, and as a result the federal government is considering whether to add the walrus to the Endangered Species List.

Walrus on ice. Barrow area, Alaska

Oil Slicks Threaten Protected Areas

The close proximity of Hanna Shoal to the drilling sites means that it is at high risk should an oil spill occur during Shells operations. The eventual fate of spilled oil depends on water currents, wind directions and ice movements, all of which change over the course of the year. The Bureau of Ocean Management (BOEM) has conducted oil spill simulations that shine a light on the probability of spilled oil reaching Hanna Shoal and other sensitive arctic ecosystems. In one oil spill scenario, a summer-time spill from the region of Shells drill sites has a 46% chance of reaching Hanna Shoal after 30 days. The areas set aside for subsistence activities are also under threat from an oil spill.

Shell has put forth rosy predictions of how quickly they will be able to control a spill or blowout, but as new research has shown, cleaning up a spill in this part of the world will be impossible. Now that President Obama has taken the first step in recognizing the importance of these ecosystems he should finish what he started and say no to offshore drilling in the Arctic.

Want to help? Sign our petition, calling on President Obama to take a stand and make the Arctic off-limits to drilling.

Tim Donaghy

By Tim Donaghy

Tim Donaghy is a Senior Research Specialist with Greenpeace USA. He writes frequently about climate change, offshore oil drilling, energy production, and the Arctic.

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