NOAA proposes listing 2 Arctic seal species as threatened

December 3, 2010 

A ringed seal rests on the ice off Prudhoe Bay Nov. 13, 2006. Ringed seals maintain breathing holes in sea ice, then dig out snow lairs when the holes get covered by snow. The lairs provide shelter from polar bears and warmth from the cold for nursing pups.

BRENDAN P. KELLY / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

The federal government on Friday proposed listing two seals that depend on sea ice as threatened species because of the projected loss of ice from climate warming.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will seek to list ringed seals found in the Arctic Basin and the North Atlantic and two populations of bearded seals in the Pacific Ocean as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

Ringed seals are the main prey of polar bears, which were listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008. For ringed seals, the proposed listing also cites the threat of reduced snow cover.

NOAA climate models were used to predict future diminishing sea ice conditions.

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to list the seals in 2008 and later sued to force a decision on additional protections.

"We're pleased that NOAA is following the science and the law in recognizing the reality of what global warming is doing to the Arctic and its species," said Brendan Cummings, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Ringed seals can live in completely ice-covered waters, using stout claws to dig and maintain breathing holes. They excavate snow caves on sea ice to provide insulated shelters for themselves and their pups.

Young ringed seal pups cannot survive in water. They are susceptible to temperature stresses until they grow a blubber layer and shed their lanugo, the white, wooly coat they're born with.

Early breakup of sea ice threatens lairs during critical rearing periods when pups are too young to survive in water. Warming can expose lairs and make pups vulnerable to polar bears and Arctic foxes.

Ringed seals have a large population, Cummings said, but the entire population is dependent on sea ice, a habitat that is disappearing.

"They're incredibly well-adapted to life in the Arctic, but what they're not adapted to is rain on snow and the lack of ice," Cummings said.

There is little chance they can survive by simply abandoning ice and taking up residence on shore, he said.

"This is an animal that essentially never comes to shore," he said. "They evolved on the ice. Absent the ice, there's nowhere to go."

Bearded seals give birth and rear pups on drifting pack ice over shallow waters where prey is abundant.

"They're very similar to walrus in behavior," Cummings said. "They're bottom feeders. They eat crabs and shelled organisms on the floor, so they need ice over shallow water, over the (continental) shelf. If the ice retreats too far off the shelf, they're denied access to their food source."

When females give birth, they need ice to last long enough in the spring and early summer to successfully reproduce and then molt, or shed and grown back their fur.

"What we're seeing for them is a shrinkage of that ice season," Cummings said.

The retreat of sea ice away from shallow shelves decreases food availability, according to the petition for listing.

The state of Alaska, which has sued to overturn the polar bear listing, also doesn't favor listing ringed and bearded seals, said endangered species coordinator Doug Vincent-Lang. He had not reviewed the decision or supporting materials but said NOAA's Fisheries Service did not work with the state to develop the model used to justify the decision.

As with polar bears, the state objects to listing species whose numbers not have been shown to be in decline. Ringed and bearded seals have "relatively high abundance levels," Vincent-Lang said, and are not at risk of immediate extinction.

"It's again this model of what could happen versus really using the ESA to protect species that are in some significant state of decline and are projected to continue to decline toward some risk of extinction within the next 20 to 30 years rather than 50 to 100 years into the future," Vincent-Lang said.

Alaska's northern waters have four species of ice seals.

NOAA in December 2008 declined to list ribbon seals, saying climate models projected annual ice would continue to form for the seals each winter during their critical birthing and molting period.

The agency in October 2009 listed spotted seals in the Yellow Sea but not in the waters off Alaska.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is under a court-ordered deadline to make a decision on a petition to list Pacific walrus by the end of January. Walrus gathered on Alaska's northwest shore in September as summer sea ice receded beyond the shallow continental shelf. Preliminary counts estimated 30,000 to 50,000 animals gathered near Point Lay.

An estimated 3,500 walruses were spotted on Sept. 12, 2009, at Icy Cape. Two days later, 131 mostly young animals were trampled when in what federal biologists likely was a stampede caused by a a polar bear, human hunter, low flying airplane or other disturbance.

NOAA will publish its proposal for listing ringed and bearded seals in the Federal Register next week. The agency will collect comments from the public for 60 days after publication. The agency has a year to make a final decision.

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