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Group announces intent to sue to protect ice seals

Posted: June 19, 2012 - 12:02am

ANCHORAGE — A conservation organization vows to sue the federal government to protect two species of ice-dependent seals found off Alaska’s northern coast.

The Center for Biological Diversity on Monday gave a required 60-day notice to the National Marine Fisheries Service that it will sue the agency for missing a deadline on deciding whether to list ringed and bearded seals as threatened species because of climate change. A listing would trigger additional protections for the animals.

“The time for protecting these seals is now,” said Rebecca Noblin, Alaska director of the conservation organization.

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned to list ringed and bearded seals in 2008. When the agency missed deadlines, the group sued to force a decision.

Ringed seals are the only seals that thrive under completely ice-covered Arctic waters. During winter, ringed seals use stout claws to dig and maintain breathing holes. Females excavate snow on the solid ice that covers breathing holes. The snow lairs provide insulated shelters for themselves and their pups.

Young ringed seal pups cannot survive in water. They are susceptible to temperature stresses until they grow a blubber layer and shed their lanugo, the white, wooly coat they’re born with.

Ringed seals are the main prey of polar bears, which often hunt pups and adults by collapsing snow lairs. Polar bears themselves were listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008 because of the projected loss of sea ice habitat.

Bearded seals give birth and rear pups on drifting pack ice over shallow water, where prey such as crabs is abundant. When females give birth, they need ice to last long enough in the spring and early summer to successfully reproduce and then molt. The projected retreat of sea ice away from shallow shelves decreases food availability, according to the listing petition.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in 2011 proposed listing ringed seals in the Arctic Basin and the North Atlantic and two populations of bearded seals in the Pacific Ocean because of projected loss of sea ice. For ringed seals, the proposal also cited the threat of reduced snow cover.

A final decision was due in December. NMFS announced it would extend the deadline for six months and the new deadline was June 10.

Noblin said the agency has had time to make a decision.

“Meanwhile, the Arctic is rapidly melting,” she said. “We’re seeing less and less ice.”

The seals face additional threats from exploratory petroleum drilling approved by the Obama administration, Noblin said.

NOAA fisheries spokeswoman Julie Speegle said it has taken longer than expected to review additional peer reports and public comment that came in until May 7.

“We’re working on the final determinations and anticipate issuing those soon,” she said by email.

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