For Immediate Release, September 28, 2009
Contact: Rebecca Noblin, (907) 274-1110
Ice-dependent Arctic Seals Advance Toward Endangered Species Act Protection
Court Settlement Requires Agency to Make Listing Findings for Ringed, Bearded, and Spotted Seals
ANCHORAGE, Alaska— A federal judge on Friday approved a settlement between the Center for Biological Diversity and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration requiring the agency to decide whether ice-dependent ringed, bearded, and spotted seals deserve legal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Under the settlement, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration must make a finding on whether listing is warranted for the spotted seal by October 15, 2009 and for the ringed and bearded seals by November 1, 2010.
In May 2008 the Center filed a petition to protect the ice-dependent ringed, bearded, and spotted seals under the Act due to threats from global warming and increasing oil development in their habitat. In September 2008, the agency found that the three seal species may deserve Endangered Species Act protection, but it has subsequently failed to make a decision on whether the species warrant legal protection within the one-year deadline provided by the statute.
The ice seal settlement comes as scientists announce that Arctic summer sea ice has reached its third lowest level ever. “Global warming is wreaking havoc on the Arctic ecosystem,” said Rebecca Noblin, an attorney with the Center in Anchorage. “An entire ecosystem is rapidly melting away, and we risk losing not only the ice seals but the polar bear and walrus as well 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 of 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, ice seals face threats from increased oil and gas development in their habitat. Oil and gas development brings a heightened risk of oil spills and rising levels of noise pollution and other kinds of human disturbance. The Obama administration is currently in the process of deciding whether to go forward with a Bush-era plan to expand offshore oil and gas development in the United States, including in the Arctic ice seal habitat.
“With rapid action to reduce greenhouse gas pollution, combined with a moratorium on new oil and gas development in the Arctic, we can still save the ice seals and other Arctic wildlife,” Noblin said. “If the ice seals are to survive, we need to protect their habitat, rather than converting it into a polluted industrial zone.”
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, ribbon seal, and Pacific walrus 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 15, 2008. The Bush administration denied listing of the ribbon seal in December 2008, a decision the Center is challenging in court. This month, pursuant to settlement of a previous Center lawsuit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that listing of the Pacific walrus may be warranted. The agency’s announcement came as federal scientists discovered as many as 3,500 Pacific walrus hauled out on the Arctic coast near Wainwright, victims of reduced sea-ice habitat from global warming. Under the Pacific walrus settlement agreement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must make a decision whether listing of the walrus is warranted by September 10, 2010.
“Unfortunately the Obama administration has been all too willing to perpetuate the destructive policies of the Bush administration in the Arctic,” said Noblin. “Unless this administration takes immediate and decisive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and put a stop to foolhardy offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic, these ice-dependent species face a grim future.”
For more information on ringed, bearded, and spotted seals and a link to the federal petition, please see:
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with 225,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.