Environmental group sues to protect ringed, bearded seals

Lawsuit comes after listing decision was delayed, then passes new deadline.

Associated PressSeptember 12, 2012 

An environmental group Wednesday sued the National Marine Fisheries Service, claiming the federal agency has failed to decide whether two ice-dependent seals found off the northern coast of Alaska should be listed as threatened or endangered.

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to list ringed seals, the main prey of polar bears, and bearded seals because of diminishing sea ice due to climate warming.

"Without steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the ice seals don't stand a chance in the long term," said attorney Rebecca Noblin in the announcement of the lawsuit. "The plight of Arctic species like these seals demands immediate action to break our fossil fuel addiction."

The lawsuit was filed in Anchorage. A NMFS spokeswoman, Julie Speegle, said Wednesday the agency does not comment on pending litigation. The agency has 60 days to respond.

The environmental group first petitioned to list the seals in 2008. The National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in 2011 proposed listing ringed seals in the Arctic Basin and the North Atlantic and two populations of bearded seals in the Pacific Ocean because of projected loss of sea ice. For ringed seals, the proposal also cited the threat of reduced snow cover.

A final decision was due in December but NMFS announced it would extend the deadline for six months. When that deadline passed, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a required 60-day notice that it intended to sue.

Ringed seals are the only seals that thrive under completely ice-covered Arctic waters. During winter, ringed seals use stout claws to dig and maintain breathing holes. Females excavate snow on the solid ice that covers breathing holes. The snow lairs provide insulated shelters for themselves and their pups.

Young ringed seal pups cannot survive in water. They are susceptible to freezing until they grow a blubber layer and shed a white, woolly coat, called lanugo, that they're born with. They're also vulnerable to predators such as Arctic fox if lairs are exposed.

Polar bears each spring gorge on ringed seals, often hunting pups and adults by collapsing snow lairs. Polar bears were listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008 because of the projected loss of sea ice habitat.

Bearded seals give birth and rear pups on drifting pack ice over shallow water, where prey such as crabs is abundant. When females give birth, they need ice to last long enough in the spring and early summer to successfully reproduce and then molt. The projected retreat of sea ice away from shallow shelves decreases food availability, according to the listing petition.

Noblin said Arctic summer sea ice on Aug. 26 had reached a record low and continues to shrink.

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