For Immediate Release, December 23, 2008
Contact: Brendan Cummings, (760) 366-2232 x304
Bush Administration Denies Protection to Arctic Seal
Threatened by Global Warming
NOAA Fisheries Ignores Climate Science and Concludes Ice-Dependant Ribbon Seals Do Not Warrant Protection Under Endangered Species Act
ANCHORAGE, Alaska— The Bush administration today denied protection for the ribbon seal under the Endangered Species Act. The ribbon seal, an ice-dependant inhabitant of the Bering and Chukchi seas off Alaska, is threatened by global warming and the consequent loss of its sea-ice habitat, as well as recent decisions to open its habitat to oil development.
Today’s decision, made by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, in response to a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity, concluded that sufficient sea ice would remain in the ribbon seal’s habitat by the end of the century for the species to survive. However, independent scientists have predicted that summer sea ice in the Arctic could be entirely gone as early as 2012 and almost certainly by 2030, while the winter ice upon which the ribbon seal depends will also be greatly diminished in the coming decades.
“The denial of protection for the ribbon seal ignores the science on global warming and ignores the law. We are confident it will be overturned by either the courts or the new administration,” said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director at the Center. “Today’s decision is reflective of how badly the scientific integrity of NOAA and other federal agencies has been damaged under the Bush administration.”
The ribbon seal is a decoratively patterned resident of the Bering, Chukchi, and Okhotsk seas off Alaska and Russia whose survival depends on the sea ice. During the late winter through early summer, ribbon seals rely on the edge of the sea ice away from predators as safe nursery for giving birth and rearing their pups. However, this sea-ice habitat is melting at a rapid pace that is vastly exceeding the predictions of climate models. Sea-ice loss and early sea-ice breakup threaten the ribbon seal’s ability to successfully rear its young by forcing pups to enter the icy Arctic waters before they are big enough and strong enough to survive.
The impacts of global warming on the ribbon seal will worsen in coming years. Scientists expect that the Arctic will be ice-free in the summer as early as 2012 while the ribbon seal’s winter sea-ice habitat in the Bering and Okhotsk seas is projected to decline 40 percent by mid century if current greenhouse gas emissions continue. Any remaining sea ice will be much thinner and unlikely to last through the pup-rearing period, leading to widespread pup mortality.
At the same time the ribbon seal’s sea-ice habitat is melting away, important foraging grounds are being auctioned off to oil companies to extract more fossil fuels that will further accelerate global warming and the melting of the Arctic. Oil companies bid on 2.7 million acres of important ribbon seal habitat in the Chukchi Sea in February, thereby opening the door for oil and gas development in a significant portion of the seal’s range. Last week, the Bush administration announced plans for two more lease sales in the Chukchi Sea, as well as an additional two lease sales in the adjacent Beaufort Sea. Growing oil and gas development and the proliferation of shipping routes in an increasingly ice-free Arctic bring heightened risk of oil spills and rising levels of noise pollution.
“The ribbon seal, like the polar bear, is being jeopardized by global warming,” said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center and the primary author of the listing petition. “Today’s decision is an affront to good science and pushes the ribbon seal a step closer to extinction.”
The ribbon seal is on a growing list of species for which the Center for Biological Diversity has sought Endangered Species Act protection due to global warming. The Center filed petitions for the Kittlitz’s murrelet in 2001, the staghorn and elkhorn corals in the Caribbean in 2004, the polar bear in 2005, 12 penguin species in 2006, the American pika in 2007, and the Pacific walrus and three other species of ice-dependent seals in 2008.
Oil and gas development, shipping, and greenhouse gas emissions affecting the Arctic would be subject to greater regulation under the Endangered Species Act if the ribbon seal is ultimately listed. Listing of the ribbon seal would not affect subsistence harvest of the species by Alaska natives, which is exempted from the law’s prohibitions.
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with 200,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.