An environmental lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage claims the National Marine Fisheries Service has delayed Endangered Species Act protection for two ice-dependent ringed and bearded seals in the Arctic.
In response to the Center's 2008 petition, NMFS in late 2010 proposed protection for ringed and bearded seals, the first Alaskan species since the polar bear to be set for protection primarily due to adverse climate change.
Under that proposed listing, all populations of ringed seals would receive Endangered Species protection, while among bearded seals only the Pacific subspecies would be protected -- seals in Alaska and Russia.
NMFS spokeswoman Julie Speegle in Juneau declined comment, as the matter is in litigation at this time.
NMFS was required by law to finalize protection by June 2012, but has failed to do so, said Rebecca Noblin, an attorney and Alaska director for the Center.
"Without steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the ice seals don't stand a chance in the long term," Noblin said. "The plight of Arctic species like these seals demands immediate action to break our fossil fuel addiction."
Bearded seals, the largest of the Arctic seals, give birth and nurse their pups on pack ice, but rapid loss of that ice jeopardizes their ability to keep the pups alive. Ringed seals give birth in snow caves built on top of the sea ice. Global warming has reduced the snowpack there, causing caves to collapse and leaving pups vulnerable to death by freezing or from predators.
Noblin said that Arctic sea ice melted away to record levels on Aug. 26, weeks before the minimum extent is normally reached, and has continued shrinking. At this rate, summer sea ice across the Arctic will likely disappear entirely in the next 10 to 20 years, while the seals' winter sea ice habitat in the Bering Sea off Alaska is projected to decline by at least 40 percent by 2050, she said.
Meanwhile, Shell has planned an offshore drilling program in this area. In early September Shell became the first company to begin drilling operations in the Chukchi Sea in more than 20 years, but halted operations after a day because of encroaching sea ice.
The seal populations have also been challenged by disease. Since last summer, hundreds of sick or dead ringed and bearded seals with skin lesions have been found off Alaska's North Slope, as well as Canada and Russia.