The Federal Aviation Administration is making the lives of walruses a little easier.
To understand how the U.S. agency and the giant sea mammals are connected, you need a little backstory.
Walruses in Alaska typically spend their days foraging for food, and then chilling out on ice floes that dot the Chukchi Sea near Point Barrow. However, climate change has caused those ice floes to melt, and that has forced walruses to “haul out” on to land. On the Alaskan peninsula, large groups of walruses—sometimes as many as 6,000—gather on the shore.
The walruses are not especially comfortable on land, and they’re easily startled. That can lead to stampedes where pups and young adults are trampled by larger walruses rushing back to the safety of the water.
As these haul-outs have become more frequent, officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have become very concerned about the animals’ safety. Past stampedes have resulted in thousands of deaths.
Walruses are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and disturbing hauled-out walruses is illegal. The service has asked that people stay away from the areas where the walruses have gathered, the Washington Post reported last year. But low-flying aircraft above the areas where the walruses gather are still a problem. If a plane flies low enough, it will spook the animals.
And so the FAA announced Tuesday that they are planning to do what they can to help protect the long-toothed mammals.
While the agency cannot restrict flights or set altitude restrictions over the areas where the walruses have hauled out, they are teaming up with the USFWS to include walrus haul-out information on visual flight rules for pilots. The FAA will also alert pilots that harassing walruses is a violation of U.S. law.
The agencies hope the measures will encourage pilots to avoid those areas, and give the walruses more time to relax.