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Global warming: Citing shrinking sea ice, feds list several Arctic seal species as threatened and endangered

Listing decision underscores climate-change threats to Arctic ecosystems

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Bearded seals are vulnerable to shrinking sea ice, declining snow cover. Photo courtesy NOAA.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Recognizing that the best available science suggests a significant loss of Arctic sea ice in the next few decades, federal biologists last week finalized Endangered Species Act protection for two species of ice-dependent seals.

NOAA will list as threatened the Beringia and Okhotsk populations of bearded seals, and the Arctic, Okhotsk, and Baltic subspecies of ringed seals. The Ladoga subspecies of ringed seals will be listed as endangered. The species that exist in U.S. waters (Arctic ringed seals and the Beringia population of bearded seals) are already protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

“Our scientists undertook an extensive review of the best scientific and commercial data. They concluded that a significant decrease in sea ice is probable later this century and that these changes will likely cause these seal populations to decline,” said Jon Kurland, protected resources director for NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska region. “We look forward to working with the State of Alaska, our Alaska Native co-management partners, and the public as we work toward designating critical habitat for these seals.”

Ringed seals and bearded seals, found in the waters off Alaska, are the first species since polar bears to be protected primarily because of climate change threats. Federal officials said the listing won’t result in any immediate restrictions on human activities, including the subsistence harvest of ice seals by Alaska Natives, a practice that is central to the traditional culture and nutrition in many Alaskan Native coastal communities. But federal agencies that permit or fund projects that may affect a listed species must consult with NOAA Fisheries to ensure the existence of the species is not jeopardized.

“Arctic animals face a clear danger of extinction from climate change,” said Shaye Wolf, Center for Biological Diversity science director.“The Endangered Species Act offers strong protections for these seals, but we can’t save the Arctic ecosystem without confronting the broader climate crisis. The Obama administration has to take decisive action, right now, against greenhouse gas pollution to preserve a world filled with ice seals, walruses and polar bears.”

The Center for Biological Diversity helped spur the listing with a petition filed in 2008. The National Marine Fisheries Service was under a court-ordered deadline to make a listing decision.

Ringed seals give birth and nurse their pups in snow caves built on sea ice. Global warming is reducing the amount of snowpack on the ice, causing snow caves to collapse and leaving pups vulnerable to death from freezing temperatures and predators. Bearded seals, named for their distinctively thick whiskers, give birth and nurse their pups on pack ice over shallow waters where their bottom-dwelling food is abundant. The rapid loss of pack ice jeopardizes their ability to raise their young and find food.

Both ringed seals and bearded seals rely on sea ice for extended periods during molting, and bearded seals live on sea ice during critical months for breeding, whelping, and nursing. Sea ice is projected to shrink both in extent and duration, with bearded seals finding inadequate ice even if they move north.

This summer Arctic sea-ice extent hit a new record low, falling to half its average size. At that pace summer sea ice across the Arctic is likely to disappear entirely in the next 10 to 20 years, while the seals’ winter sea-ice habitat in the Bering Sea off Alaska is projected to decline at least 40 percent by 2050.

The listing decision provides Endangered Species Act protections to all populations of the ringed seal and the Pacific subspecies of the bearded seal, which inhabits Alaska and parts of Russia and Canada. The Act will provide a safety net for these seals that includes habitat protections, recovery planning and, most importantly, a prohibition on federal actions that could jeopardize the seals. Listing of the seals will not affect subsistence harvest by Alaska natives, which is exempted from the law’s provisions.

The federal government has acknowledged that other Arctic species are imperiled by global warming, including polar bears, listed as threatened in 2008, and Pacific walruses, made candidates for listing under the Act in 2011.

The listings become effective 60 days from the date of publication in the Federal Register. NOAA Fisheries will now begin seeking 60 days of public comment to inform any future critical habitat proposals for Arctic ringed seals and the Beringia DPS of bearded seals. The listing determinations, related Federal Register documents, status review reports, and other background information are available on the NOAA Fisheries Alaska region website. Additional photos and materials are on the NOAA Fisheries website.

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