ANCHORAGE - A pair of Web cameras providing Internet images of walruses basking on Round Island will be shut off this week at the request of Alaska Native leaders, who do not want viewers to see the animals shot and butchered during the traditional fall hunt.
The cameras transmit to a popular Web site where viewers normally can watch live video of Pacific walruses snoozing on a rocky beach. The site has tallied tens of thousands of hits since it went online more than a month ago, and viewer overload often caused it to crash.
But Alaska Natives fear widespread viewing of Internet images of walruses being killed with rifles on the half-mile beach could threaten the traditional subsistence hunt.
"They're certainly concerned about anything that could turn that around again and make it so they couldn't hunt out there anymore," said state biologist Joe Meehan.
Alaska Natives have the right to conduct the traditional walrus hunt in privacy, said Helen Chythlook, executive director of the Bristol Bay Native Association's Qayassiq Walrus Commission.
"When you go deer hunting you don't want a camera shining on you," Chythlook said.
Native hunters are permitted to take up to 20 walruses during the hunt, which starts Saturday and ends Oct. 20. The animals are difficult to count as they slip in and out of the water, but they are not considered endangered, threatened or depleted by federal standards, Meehan said.
Residents of nine villages near Bristol Bay are allowed to harvest Round Island walruses this season. The meat is a core food source for Alaska Natives in the area, including the coastal Yupik and Inupiaq communities. Walrus ivory and bone are transformed into crafts and artwork. The skins become boat coverings, while intestines can serve as rain gear.
The hunt was banned in 1960 after the Walrus Islands were designated a wildlife sanctuary by the state. In 1995, Alaska Natives were allowed to resume hunting on the island through an agreement with the state and federal government.
The 35-year ban on access to the island for hunting "really put a hardship on our Alaska Native traditional way of life," Chythlook said.
Meehan would like people to understand the walrus's cultural importance to Native villages, but does not think showing a hunt online would do the job.
"A reasonable person would see there's no harm in this small hunt," Meehan said. "But transmitting images on the Internet of walruses being hunted without educating people is not the best way to help them learn about the hunt at Round Island."