Popular Web cameras that allow viewers to watch live video of Pacific walruses will be shut off this week at the request of Alaska Natives.
Leaders do not want viewers to see the animals shot and butchered during a fall subsistence hunt, fearing widespread Internet images could threaten the tradition.
"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.
Helen Chythlook, executive director of the Bristol Bay Native Association's Qayassiq Walrus Commission, said that Alaska Natives have the right to conduct the walrus hunt in privacy.
"When you go deer hunting you don't want a camera shining on you," Chythlook said.
The cameras transmit to a popular Web site where viewers can watch video of walruses snoozing on a rocky beach on Round Island in the Bering Sea. The site has tallied tens of thousands of hits since it went online more than a month ago, and viewer overload often causes it to crash.
The camera focused on the beach used most by the tusked animals will be removed Friday, the day before the hunt begins.
A second camera, on a beach less frequented by walruses, will be turned off Friday and switched back on Oct. 21, the day after the hunt ends. Its images won't be sent to the Web site over the winter because of the high costs, but biologists hope to use the camera to monitor the weather and wildlife populations.
Meehan said state biologists would have disconnected the cameras from the Web site in early September anyway because of limited funding and harsh weather.
The hunt was banned in 1960 after the Walrus Islands, located off Alaska's southwest coast, 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.
Residents of nine villages near Bristol Bay are allowed to harvest Round Island walruses this season. Native hunters are permitted to take up to 20 walruses.
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 animals are difficult to count as they slip in and out of the water, but are not considered endangered, threatened or depleted by federal standards, Meehan said.