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For Immediate Release, October 15, 2009

Contact:  Shaye Wolf, (415) 632-5301, (415) 385-5746

Obama Administration Denies Protection for Arctic Seal Threatened by Global Warming

ANCHORAGE, Alaska— Today the Obama administration denied Endangered Species Act protection for the spotted seal, an Arctic species dependent on sea ice whose habitat is rapidly melting away in the face of global warming. The finding, issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, comes in response to a petition and lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity.  

“While its rhetoric may be better, when it comes to actual action in protecting endangered species, the Obama administration is indistinguishable from Bush,” said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Sound science and the protection of the environment still take a back seat to political expediency.”

Spotted seals rely on the edge of the sea ice away from predators as safe habitat for giving birth and rearing their pups. Loss and thinning of sea ice and early sea-ice breakup threaten these seals’ ability to successfully raise their young. Climate projections indicate that the spotted seal will lose 40 percent of its winter sea-ice habitat in the Bering and Okhotsk seas off Alaska and Russia by 2050.

In addition to loss of sea ice from global warming, the spotted seal faces threats from increased oil and gas development in its 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 spotted ice seal habitat in the Arctic.

In today’s finding, to be published in the Federal Register next week, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration acknowledges that sea ice in the Arctic is rapidly melting, the agency somehow concludes that the ice-dependant spotted seal will either adapt to a life on land or migrate to better habitat elsewhere. Only a small population at the southern fringe of the species’ range was determined to be imperiled by the agency.

The agency proposed listing for spotted seal populations in Liaodong Bay, China and Peter the Great Bay, Russia due to the threats of diminishing sea ice. However, the agency failed to propose protections for more than 98 percent of the world’s spotted seals that inhabit U.S. and Russian waters, claiming that declining sea ice does not threaten these populations.

Today’s decision comes shortly after scientists announced that Arctic summer sea ice has reached its third-lowest minimum ever, and after scientists released new data suggesting that the Arctic will be ice free in the summer within 20 years.

“The Arctic is experiencing a rapid meltdown, and yet the Obama administration refuses to acknowledge that sea-ice loss is jeopardizing the spotted seal in U.S. waters,” said Wolf. “It is tragic that the administration has denied the spotted seal needed protections in our own waters, where we can provide the most help.”
In May 2008, the Center filed a petition to protect the spotted seal, bearded seal, and ringed seal under the Endangered Species Act due to threats from global warming and increasing oil development in their habitat. Listing of the seals would not affect subsistence harvest of these seals by Alaska natives, which is exempted from the law’s prohibitions. In September 2008, the agency found that the three seal species may deserve Endangered Species Act protection but failed to make a decision on whether the species warrant legal protection within the one-year deadline provided by the statute. Following a lawsuit and settlement, the agency was required to 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. The Center is currently challenging the agency’s decision to deny Endangered Species Act protection to the ribbon seal.

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

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national nonprofit conservation organization with 240,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.


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