A year after Russia invaded Ukraine, a walrus discovery is caught up in geopolitics

Map of the Barents Strait between Alaska and Russia's Chukotka region. How will tensions between Moscow and Washington affect researchers in the Arctic? (iStock)
Cape Serdtse­-Kamen’, a headland on the northeastern coast of Chukotka, has been reported as a walrus haulout since the 1920s. (iStock)

Last October, research biologist Tony Fischbach made a startling discovery. Using satellite imagery, Fischbach and his team counted 200,000 Pacific walrus on one Russian beach at Cape Serdtse­-Kamen’, bordering the Chukchi Sea. 

It suggests that the most recent population estimate, which measured about 260,000 Pacific walrus in the world, may have been an undercount.

A year ago, Fischbach would have been able to quickly confirm the finding with his Russian colleagues. But since the U.S. severed many research ties with Russia at the start of the Ukraine invasion, he doesn’t know when that will happen.

Fischbach studies walrus populations for the U.S. Geological Survey, a federal agency that studies natural resources and the hazards that threaten them.

For decades, stretching back to the Cold War, Russian and American scientists have been close partners on Pacific walrus research. U.S. and Soviet researchers began flying joint aerial surveys to count the animals in 1975.

“Even during my career — almost 30 years — there are people I’ve worked with the entire time,” said Fischbach. “They’ve been on ships with us shoulder to shoulder working closely together. We gathered data together, we published it together, that’s been our tradition.”

Communicating how climate change is impacting northern peoples, will be key to getting the world to fully understand the ramifications of Arctic environmental warming, say experts. , near the village of Toksook Bay, Alaska
An Alaska man on the frozen Bering Sea. Many Alaska communities rely on walrus for country food. (Gregory Bull/AP/via The Canadian Press)

Walrus are an important subsistence animal for coastal Bering Sea communities. But as climate change speeds sea ice loss, the habitats and migration patterns of these massive marine mammals are changing in new and unpredictable ways.

But walrus don’t recognize international borders. And after Fischbach and his American colleagues made their exciting population discovery last year, it’s been hard to move the research forward without Russian input.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, the U.S. imposed sanctions and began to cut off government funding and research relationships with Russian government-affiliated research institutions.

As a result, Fischbach, a federal employee, has had no communication  with his colleagues across the Bering Strait.

“We don’t want them to be put in any danger for communicating with Americans. And due to our sanctions, we also need to step back and not have direct communication,” he said.

A file photo of a walrus herd on ice. (iStock)

There is a caveat to the count that Fischbach needs his Russian colleagues to clear up. The 200,000 estimate relied on walrus density measurements made in Alaska — that is, how closely the walrus pack together when they haul out on shore.

Fischbach said they won’t know their measurement is correct until Russian scientists publish their own density data and confirm Fischbach’s team accurately interpreted the satellite images.

“Our approach is to continue doing what we can and hope that they can do what they can,” Fischbach said. “We’ll publish our findings and our data. They can access that, they can publish their findings and their data. And we can move our science forward.”

Research slowed

This new format for scientific progress is like playing a long-distance game of “telephone” through formally published findings.

The strained relationship between Russia and the U.S. has also slowed research at the university level.

Vladimir Romanovsky, a Russian-born permafrost scientist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, said increased tension with the outside world has made it riskier for Russian scientists to work with foreign agencies. It’s a tricky path to navigate, he said, because the government also wants international recognition for their science.

“On the one hand, they push [Russian scientists] to work with Western scientists and publish in Western literature. But on the other hand, if you’re doing it, you always have a chance to get in trouble,” Romanovsky said. “That’s Russia.”

Romanovsky said Russian scientists who accept funding from abroad also risk being labeled a “foreign agent” by their government.

“Which is very serious in Russia. You can go to jail for that,” Romanovsky said.

Obstacle to new collaborations

Universities aren’t subject to the same sanctions that federal agencies like USGS are, so Romanovsky can still communicate virtually with his Russian colleagues. But meeting in-person has proved difficult as the international scientific community has moved to exclude Russia from conferences in the last year.

Romanovsky said while it’s still possible to continue ongoing projects with his Russian colleagues, starting any new collaborations will be difficult.

“It’s hurting, not immediate right now. But [in] the future, definitely, there is much more problems with the future,” he said.

Romanovsky wants to bring some of his colleagues to Alaska for a research visit in the fall, but he said getting them visas will be nearly impossible.

Meanwhile Fischbach is waiting to see if his Russian colleagues confirm the giant walrus count with their own scientific paper. There’s no way to know when the publication is coming, but he said he trusts they’re working on it.

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Ocean protection needs Inuit involvement, marine congress hears, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: No return to pre-war reality when it comes to Arctic cooperation, says Finnish report, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Calling all walrus detectives! Public can pitch in for count starting Jan 17…, Eye on the Arctic

Russia: Novatek’s new Arctic license areas located in protected nature reserve, The Independent Barents Observer

United StatesTwo Russians seek asylum after reaching remote Alaska island, The Associated Press

Kavitha George, Alaska Public Media

Statewide morning news host + reporter for @alaskapublic — kgeorge@alaskapublic.org | previously @KMXTnews, @AKEnergyDesk, @bustle and @KTOOpubmedia | she/her

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