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For Immediate Release, March 26, 2008

Contact: Shaye Wolf, (415) 385-5746

Arctic Seals Threatened by Global Warming Advance
Toward Endangered Species Act Protection

SAN FRANCISCO— Today, in response to a scientific petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the federal government announced it was launching a full status review to determine whether the ribbon seal, an ice-dependent species of the Bering and Chukchi seas off Alaska, warrants the protections of the Endangered Species Act. The review will be conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In addition to the ribbon seal, the Fisheries Service announced it will also initiate status reviews on bearded, spotted, and ringed seals, three other ice-dependent seals that inhabit U.S. waters off Alaska.

The Fisheries Service announcement comes as its sister agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, continues to illegally delay a final decision on Endangered Species Act listing for the polar bear, which would become the first species to be listed under the Act primarily due to global warming.

“The Arctic is in a crisis state from global warming,” said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the ribbon seal petition. “An entire ecosystem is rapidly melting away, and we stand to lose not just the polar bear, but also the ribbon seal and all other ice-dependent species if we do not immediately take action to address global warming.”

The ribbon seal is dependent on Arctic sea ice for survival. During the late winter through early summer, ribbon seals rely on the edge of the sea ice in the Bering and Okhotsk seas off Alaska and Russia as safe habitat for giving birth and as a nursery for their pups. But this winter sea-ice habitat is rapidly disappearing. If current ice-loss trends from global warming continue, the ribbon seal faces likely extinction by the end of the century.

The ribbon seal’s winter sea-ice habitat is projected to decline 40 percent by mid-century under recent greenhouse gas emissions trends. Any remaining sea ice will be much thinner and unlikely to last long enough for ribbon seals to finish rearing their pups, leading to widespread pup mortality. Disturbingly, warming in the Arctic is occurring at a rapid pace that is exceeding the predictions of the most advanced climate models. Summer sea-ice extent in 2007 plummeted to a record minimum, which most climate models forecast would not be reached until 2050.

In addition to loss of its sea-ice habitat from global warming, the ribbon seal faces threats from oil and gas development in its habitat, and the growth of shipping in the increasingly ice-free Arctic. Last month, important summer feeding areas for the ribbon seal in the Chukchi Sea were leased for oil development, while seismic surveys are planned for the area this summer.

“With rapid action to reduce carbon dioxide, methane, and black carbon emissions, combined with a moratorium on new oil-and-gas development and shipping routes in the Arctic, we can still save the ribbon seal, the polar bear, and the entire Arctic ecosystem,” said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director for the Center. “But the window of opportunity to act is closing rapidly. Endangered Species Act protection for the ribbon seal and other Arctic species will provide important tools to protect these species and their fragile habitat in the Arctic.”

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 listed. Listing of the 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 filed the ribbon seal petition on December 20, 2007, triggering a requirement that the Fisheries Service make an initial finding within 90 days. Last week the Center formally notified the Fisheries Service that the finding was overdue and threatened to sue if the finding was not immediately forthcoming. Today’s finding that protection of the species under the Endangered Species Act may be warranted triggers a requirement to complete the status review and issue a proposed rule to list the species by December 20, 2008.

Under the Endangered Species Act, seals, whales, and dolphins are under the jurisdiction of the Fisheries Service, while polar bears and walruses are under the jurisdiction of the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Fish and Wildlife Service is more than two months late in issuing a final rule to protect the polar bear. Litigation regarding the overdue polar bear decision is ongoing. A decision on the Center’s petition to protect the Pacific walrus is due in May 2008.

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