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Ribbon seals on track for Endangered Species Act listing, agency says

Alex DeMarban
Photo by Alex DeMarban

The National Marine Fisheries Service has renewed plans that may lead to a listing of the ribbon seals under the Endangered Species Act, bringing to three the number of ice-dependent seals in Alaska that could be protected by the act.

The agency rejected a ribbon-seal listing in 2008 but said new information warrants a second look. That's disappointing news, said Rick Rogers, executive director with the pro-industry Resource Development Council in Anchorage.

The combined population of ribbon, bearded and ringed seal populations in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas exceed 1 million animals, so why should they fall under the act's protections, he wondered.

"We continue to question whether the Endangered Species Act is drifting from its original charge to protect species in peril and instead is being used as a land use and zoning policy (tool) to control offshore and onshore lands," he said.  

The new review comes as part of a settlement agreement with the Center for Biological Diversity, the Arizona-based conservation group that described the agreement in a press release Monday.

National Marine Fisheries Service also said Monday it would delay a decision whether to list ringed and bearded seals as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The agency needs another six months because of disagreements about how quickly the animals' ice habitat will disappear, said Julie Speegle, a spokeswoman with the agency.

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned for the listing of ringed and bearded seals in 2008. Rebecca Noblin, the group's Alaska director, was not pleased with the delay.

“The longer we wait to tackle the greenhouse gases that are destroying ringed and bearded seals’ Arctic home, the harder it’s going to be to save these remarkable animals," said Noblin. “An entire Arctic ecosystem hangs in the balance. Losing sea ice means losing Arctic seals, and losing Arctic seals means losing polar bears."

Warmer temperatures are causing earlier melting of snow dens that protect ringed seal pups from polar bears, the main seal predator. Warming temperatures also are affecting food supply on bearded seals' shallow foraging grounds, the center said in a written statement.

The animals, which exist in Alaska and elsewhere, are increasingly threatened, said Noblin.

Scores of sick or dead ringed seals have shown up with skin lesions off Alaska’s North Slope, as well as Canada and Russia, although the cause of those lesions is unclear. If oil drilling is allowed in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, impossible-to-clean spills in icy waters will further threaten the seals, the center’s press release said.

The fisheries service will make its listing decision for ringed and bearded seals by June 10, said Speegle. A threatened listing would be the first step towards possibly designating the seals' habitat – areas where the animals feed, breed and migrate -- as critical. That could affect development costs. For example, oil companies hoping to drill would have to consult with the agency to show that its efforts won't impact the animals. They might also have to limit their work to certain times, areas and methods to avoid disturbances.

Polar bears that rely on the fatty seals for their primary food were listed as threatened because of declining sea-ice habitat in 2008.

As for the ribbon seals, which spend most of their time at sea but breed and molt on sea ice in the Bering and Okhotsk seas, NMFS said a second look is warranted because of new information on the animals' diving, movements and future threats. The agency said Monday it's launching a 12-month status review and opening a 60-day public comment period.

To comment on the review of the ribbon seal, send comments to Kaja Brix, assistant regional administrator of the Protected Resources Division in Alaska. Submissions can be made to http://www.regulations.gov.

To comment:

  • Mail: P.O. Box 21668, Juneau, AK 99802.
  • Fax: (907) 586–7557.
  • Hand delivery to the federal building at 709 West 9th Street, Room 420A, in Juneau.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com