Alaska News

New federal habitat designation for protected seals will extend off much of Alaska’s coasts

The Biden administration is designating a giant swath of waters off Alaska’s Bering Sea and Arctic coasts as critical habitat for ringed seals and bearded seals.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week that the area would encompass waters extending from St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea to the edge of Canadian waters in the Arctic.

The snow- and ice-dependent seals were listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act in 2012, but the listings faced court challenges, delaying the designation of critical habitat.

The Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group, filed a lawsuit against the agency in 2019 for not completing the designation in time, leading to a settlement with a commitment by the agency to determine critical habitat in April this year.

Alaska’s Republican U.S. senators decried the move. The area covers more than 260,000 square miles, about the size of Texas, said Sen. Lisa Murkowski in a prepared statement Monday.

[U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to visit Alaska this month]

“It is an abuse of power, inappropriately leveraging the Endangered Species Act,” Murkowski said in the statement. “The domino effect this could have on fisheries, shipping, Arctic infrastructure, responsible resource development, and more — is quite serious for Alaska and all who live, work, and raise families here.”

“NOAA’s designation of critical habitat for both species allows these crushing federal regulatory burdens to take effect across broad swaths of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas, further locking up our lands, waters and resources,” Sen. Dan Sullivan said in the statement.

The agency acknowledges that the proposed designation would likely result in restrictions on oil and gas activities, marine transportation and other industries, the statement from the senators said.

Reduced sea ice is threatening the seals, which rely on the snow and ice for protection from predators and the elements, the Center for Biological Diversity said.

“This is fantastic news for these ice-dependent seals,” said Emily Jeffers, an attorney with the conservation group, in a statement. “We can’t save them without protecting the places they live.”

The critical habitat designation will not restrict subsistence activities by Alaska Native communities, according to NOAA.

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or