2 species of Alaska ice seals face endangered listing

Hannah HeimbuchThe Arctic Sounder
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As many as six species of ice seals could be joining the endangered species list this summer, following final review and decisions by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Of the four species of ringed seals and two distinct population segments of bearded seals, only two of them appear in U.S. or Alaska waters. Those two are the Arctic ringed seal and the Beringia DPS bearded seal.

This week NOAA opened a 30-day public comment period regarding recently completed peer reviews addressing the endangerment status of these seals.

"This is the last opportunity for the public to provide input before we make our final determination on whether or not to list these ringed and bearded seals," said NOAA information officer Julie Speegle.

Initially, a decision about the seals and whether to list them was slated to be made in December 2011. According to a NOAA release, however, there was enough disagreement surrounding the scientific findings of the proposal that the topic warranted further peer review and public commentary. So the decision was pushed back six months to allow for this process.

Reports cited the primary threats to the seal species as diminishing sea ice and, for ringed seals, reduced snow cover. Using projections based on current climate models, contributing scientists outlined the future threat to seal habitat.

"There was some disagreement whether those projections were sufficient or accurate," Speegle said. She added that the loss of sea ice is the main factor at this point as NOAA considers the listing decision. The public comment they seek now is regarding the extended peer reviews of this and other pressing elements affecting seal habitat.

A final decision on which species to list as endangered, all, some or none, is scheduled to come out in June.

At this point, whether one species or all six are listed as endangered, subsistence fishing in Alaska will not be affected, Speegle said.

"The Endangered Species Act allows for subsistence harvest of ice seals by Alaska Natives," she said.

Unless there is a drastic drop in seal population, Speegle said, subsistence hunting will be allowed regardless of endangerment status. At this point the "danger" in endangered refers largely to a threat to habitat, and not necessarily a drop in population — though the two are inevitably linked.

"When a species is listed, the next step is to define critical habitat," Speegle said. "So what the Endangered Species Act does, before any federal actions can go forward in areas of critical habitat, there has to be consultation done to determine what impacts those actions would have on these seals."

This would include permits for oil drilling and exploration, and any other actions requiring the involvement of a federal entity.

Find the peer review reports and submit comments here: Ringed seals | Bearded seals

Submit comments via U.S. Postal Service here:

Jon Kurland, Assistant Regional Administrator, Protected Resources, Alaska Region, NMFS
ATTN: Ellen Sebastian
P.O. Box 21668
Juneau, Alaska 99802

This article was originally published by The Bristol Bay Times-Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is reprinted here with permission.