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For Immediate Release, December 3, 2010

Contact:  Rebecca Noblin, (907) 274-1110

Two Arctic Ice Seals Threatened by Climate Change Proposed for
Endangered Species Act Protection

Seals Would Be First Alaskan Species Since Polar Bear to Be Listed
Due to Climate Change

ANCHORAGE, Alaska— Responding to a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity, the Obama administration today proposed Endangered Species Act protection for two ice-dependent Arctic seals threatened by climate change. The bearded seal and ringed seal will be the first Alaskan species since the polar bear to be protected primarily due to threats from climate change.

“Global warming is rapidly robbing these Arctic seals of the ice they need to survive,” said Rebecca Noblin, the Center’s Alaska director. “With this decision, the Obama administration is improving the odds for these two struggling species of ice-dependent seals. The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, so no animal reliant on Arctic sea ice is safe.”

The ringed seal, the primary food for polar bears, excavates snow caves on top of the sea ice to create protected shelters for nursing pups. As the Arctic warms, the sea ice is breaking up earlier, and rain is falling on snow, causing snow caves to collapse and leading to the deaths of pups.

Bearded seals, distinctive for their mustachioed appearance and elaborate courtship songs, give birth and nurse their pups on pack ice. The rapid loss of pack ice jeopardizes their ability to rear young and is lowering the abundance of the seals’ food on their shallow foraging grounds in the Bering Sea.

The seals’ winter sea-ice habitat in the Bering, Okhotsk and Barents seas is projected to decline by at least 40 percent by 2050, while summer sea ice across the Arctic has been projected to disappear in the next 20 years. These seals also face threats from proposed offshore oil and gas development off Alaska, where an oil spill in icy waters would be impossible to clean up. The Obama administration recently announced plans to move forward with a Bush-era plan to drill in the seals’ habitat off Alaska.

“Endangered Species Act protection provides time-tested tools to save species from extinction,” said Noblin. “Reducing the world’s carbon dioxide level — which is driving global warming — to less than 350 parts per million can restore Arctic sea ice and preserve a planet that still contains wonders such as polar bears, walruses and ice seals.”

In May 2008, the Center filed a petition to protect ringed, bearded and spotted seals under the Endangered Species Act. The administration has one year to finalize today’s decision to list bearded and ringed seals. The listing would not affect Alaska natives’ subsistence harvest, which is exempted generally from the Act’s prohibitions.

Under today’s decision, all populations of ringed seals would receive Endangered Species Act protection, while only the Pacific subspecies of bearded seals, which includes those in Alaska and Russia, would receive protection. Today’s proposal to protect the ice seals comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an agency within the Department of Commerce. A separate federal agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, within the Department of the Interior, is under court order to decide by Dec. 23 whether polar bears should receive a higher level of protection as “endangered” rather than their current “threatened” status. The Fish and Wildlife Service must also decide by Jan. 31, 2011, whether the Pacific walrus warrants protection under the Act.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation group with more than 315,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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