NOAA Fisheries announced Tuesday that it would not list the ribbon seal under the Endangered Species Act, though the species will remain one of concern.
Populations are estimated to be between 200,000 and 300,000 animals, NOAA said. While the ribbon seal is likely to be threatened by the declining sea ice, that decline is not expected to render the species in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future, scientists said.
"Each species of ice-associated seals has somewhat different habitat requirements," said Jon Kurland, NOAA Fisheries' assistant regional administrator for protected resources. "Ribbon seals are fairly adaptable. Their diet is diverse, they feed over a wide range of depths, and there is evidence that they may compensate for changes in sea ice by moving to other habitats in which they are still able to feed and reproduce, in contrast to ringed and bearded seals which are more specialized and are not expected to do as well with changes in sea ice."
In December, four species of ringed seals and two distinct population segments of bearded seals were listed under the Endangered Species Act. A population segment of spotted seals is also listed.
In 2008, ribbon seals were determined to be not endangered, but new information, including new data on ribbon seal movements, prompted renewed consideration. Ribbon seals are one of four species that live in sea ice found in the Bering and Chukchi seas off Alaska as well as off the Russian coast. They use the sea ice primarily during reproduction and molting, spending the rest of the year in open seas.
The state of Alaska said in a release that it applauds the agency's decision, concurring that the best scientific and commercial data available indicates such a listing is not warranted at this time.
"This decision begins to bring rationality to the recent misapplication of the ESA that has resulted in the precautionary listing of currently abundant and robust species based on speculated and unproven climate-related impacts over century timeframes," the state release said, adding that Alaska would be ready to assist the federal agency should the decision be challenged in court.
The state, along with the North Slope Borough and the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, recently filed litigation challenging the decision to list the bearded seal as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The state and other agencies contend that bearded seal populations are healthy, and while climate change over the next century may cause numbers to drop, the species is not currently threatened.
"These decisions are made with a disregard for both the law and the limits of current scientific knowledge," said Doug Vincent-Lang, Director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation. "Indeed, under this policy, any species could be listed as threatened if one makes enough unverifiable and speculative predictions about what might occur 50 to 100 years from now, or beyond."