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For Immediate Release, Sept. 4, 2008

Contact: Shaye Wolf, Center for Biological Diversity, (415) 436-9682 x 301

Three Arctic Seal Species Advance Toward
Endangered Species Act Protection;
Ringed, Bearded, and Spotted Seals Threatened by Global Warming

SAN FRANCISCO— In response to a scientific petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the federal government announced today it was launching a full status review to determine whether three ice-dependent seal species that inhabit Alaskan waters warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act.

This is the first step toward formal listing for ringed, bearded, and spotted seals, all of which are threatened by rapid loss of their sea-ice habitat due to global warming. The status review will be conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Today’s announcement comes amid reports that Arctic summer sea-ice extent could reach another record low this year. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, Arctic summer sea-ice extent reached its second lowest level in 30 years on August 26th, with several weeks still left in the summer melt season, and could plummet below the record minimum observed in September 2007. L eading climate scientists warn that the Arctic may be ice-free in the summer as early as 2012.

“The Arctic is in crisis due to global warming,” said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the seal petition. “An entire ecosystem is rapidly melting away, and we risk losing not just the polar bear but the ice seals and other ice-dependent species if we do not take immediate action to address global warming.”

Ringed, bearded, and spotted seals use the sea ice in slightly different ways, but each depends on the sea ice for giving birth, rearing pups, and resting. Ringed seals, which are the primary prey for polar bears, excavate snow caves on sea ice to provide hidden, insulated shelters for themselves and their pups. The early breakup of sea ice destroys these snow sanctuaries, resulting in increased deaths of pups. Bearded seals, which are distinctive for their mustachioed appearance and their elaborate courtship songs, give birth and rear their pups on drifting pack ice over shallow waters, where their bottom-dwelling prey is abundant. The early retreat of the sea ice off the food-rich shallow shelves decreases food availability for these seals. Spotted seals, whose longer noses give them a dog-like appearance, rely on the edge of the sea ice away from predators as safe habitat for giving birth and as a nursery for their pups. Loss of sea ice and early sea-ice breakup threaten these seals’ ability to successfully rear their young.

In addition to loss of sea ice from global warming, these seals face threats from increased oil and gas development in their habitat and the proliferation of shipping routes in an increasingly ice-free Arctic. Both activities bring heightened risk of oil spills and rising levels of noise pollution and other kinds of human disturbance.

“With rapid action to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, combined with a moratorium on new oil and gas development and shipping routes in the Arctic, we can still save the ice seals and other Arctic wildlife,” Wolf said. “If the ice seals are to survive, we need to protect their habitat, rather than converting it into a polluted industrial zone.”

The Center for Biological Diversity filed the petition to list the three seal species on May 28. Today’s finding that protection of the species under the Endangered Species Act may be warranted triggers a requirement for federal officials to complete the status review and issue a proposed rule to list the species by May 28, 2009.

Listing of the seals would not affect subsistence harvest of these seals by Alaska natives, which is exempted from the law’s prohibitions.

The Center has also filed petitions seeking protection of the polar bear, Pacific walrus, and ribbon seal from melting sea ice and other effects of global warming. The polar bear was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act on May 15th. The National Marine Fisheries Service is currently reviewing the ribbon seal for listing under the Endangered Species Act, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has yet to respond to the walrus petition, a decision that was due on May 7th.

For more information on ringed, bearded, and spotted seals and a link to the federal petition, please see: seals/index.html.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with more than 180,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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