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For Immediate Release, September 12, 2012

Contact:  Rebecca Noblin, (907) 274-1110

Lawsuit Filed to Protect Arctic Ice Seals Threatened by Global Warming

Obama Administration Ignores Duty to Save Two Seal Species From Extinction

ANCHORAGE, Alaska— With Shell poised to launch a new era of dangerous oil drilling in the Arctic, the Center for Biological Diversity today sued the Obama administration for delaying Endangered Species Act protection for two ice-dependent Arctic seals urgently threatened by climate change and the industrialization of their habitat. Responding to a 2008 Center petition, the administration in late 2010 proposed protection for ringed and bearded seals, the first Alaskan species since the polar bear to be set for protection primarily due to threats from climate change. The administration was required by law to finalize protection by June 2012, but has failed to do so.

Ringed seal
Ringed seal photo courtesy National Marine Mammal Laboratory, NOAA. Photos are available for media use.

“The Obama administration needs to throw bearded and ringed seals a lifeline before their sea-ice home melts beneath them,” said Rebecca Noblin, the Center’s Alaska director. “Without steep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the ice seals don’t stand a chance in the long term. The plight of Arctic species like these seals demands immediate action to break our fossil fuel addiction.”

Bearded seals, the largest of the Arctic seals, are named for their distinctively thick whiskers. They give birth and nurse their pups on pack ice but the rapid loss of that ice jeopardizes their ability to keep the pups alive. Ringed seals give birth in snow caves built on top of the sea ice. Global warming is reducing the amount of snowpack there, causing caves to collapse and leaving pups vulnerable to death by freezing or from predators.

Arctic sea ice melted away to record levels on Aug. 26, weeks before the minimum extent is normally reached, and has continued shrinking. At this pace, summer sea ice across the Arctic will likely disappear entirely in the next 10 to 20 years, while the seals’ winter sea-ice habitat in the Bering Sea off Alaska is projected to decline by at least 40 percent by 2050. Meanwhile, oil giant Shell has launched an aggressive offshore-drilling program in the seals’ home. Earlier this week, it became the first company to begin drilling for oil in the Chukchi Sea in more than 20 years.

“As if losing their sea-ice home in the great Arctic thaw weren’t enough, these struggling seals now have to contend with dangerous industrial drilling and the risk of a major oil spill,” said Noblin. “Without the protection of the Endangered Species Act, bearded and ringed seals are facing a one-two punch that could put them down for good.”

The seals face another problem: Since last summer, hundreds of sick or dead ringed and bearded seals with skin lesions have been discovered off Alaska’s North Slope, as well as Canada and Russia; the cause of the disease is still unknown but may be related to increasing stress to the animals as their habitat melts away.

Under the listing proposed in 2010, all populations of ringed seals would receive Endangered Species Act protection, while among bearded seals only the Pacific subspecies would be protected — seals in Alaska and Russia. The listing would not affect Alaska Natives’ subsistence harvest, generally exempted from the Act’s prohibitions.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 375,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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