Ice seals to be studied for possible ESA listing

Posted: Thursday, March 27, 2008

ANCHORAGE - A federal agency announced Wednesday it would consider Endangered Species Act protections for ribbon seals in the Bering Sea, plus three other seal species that rely on sea ice for survival.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration accepted a petition from a California environmental group seeking threatened or endangered status for ribbon seals because their habitat is melting from global warming brought on by humans.

NOAA Fisheries also expanded the status review to include ringed, spotted and bearded seals.

"While the four species of ice seals in Alaska all utilize various types of sea ice habitats, they use the ice in different ways," said Doug Mecum, acting administrator for the Alaska Region, in the announcement. "Therefore, careful status reviews of each species is warranted."

Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity and the lead author of the listing petition, said the agency's action was another important government recognition that the entire Arctic ecosystem is being threatened by global warming.

The group based its petition on projections that winter sea ice will decline 40 percent by mid-century. Remaining sea ice will be thinner and unlikely to last long enough for ribbon seals to finish rearing their pups, according to the group.

Wolf said the agency's proactive position came as a surprise, given that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is two and a half months overdue on a final decision to list polar bears as threatened due to global warming's effect on sea ice.

"The science is really clear that all of the seals are threatened by global warming by the loss of sea ice, and they all need protection," Wolf said.

Acceptance of the petition gives NOAA Fisheries nine more months for a full status review of ribbon seals.

If agency officials propose listing ribbon seals as threatened or endangered, they would have a year to collect additional scientific data and public testimony before the deadline for a final decision.

Listing a species would trigger a recovery plan that could address U.S. causes of global warming or other threats, such as the potential effect of offshore oil and gas development.

Ribbon seals during summer and fall live in water and feed on fish, squid and crustaceans in the Bering and Chukchi seas. From March through June, ribbon seals rely on loose pack ice in the Bering and Okhotsk seas for reproduction and molting.

Ribbon seals birth and nurse pups exclusively on sea ice. Newborn ribbon seals have a coat of soft, white hair that provides insulation until they grow a thick layer of blubber. Pups can survive submersion in icy water only after they've formed the blubber layer.

Ringed seals are the smallest and most numerous of the seals that thrive off Alaska's coasts and are the primary prey of polar bears. Ringed seals can survive in completely ice-covered waters by digging out breathing holes in the ice.

Those breathing holes eventually get covered by drifting snow and female ringed seals dig out lairs within drifts to give birth and nurse pups on sea ice. Like ribbon seals, ringed seal pups cannot survive in cold water until they've grown a layer of blubber.

Bearded seals are the largest of Alaska's seals and another prey of polar bears. They can reach a weight of 750 pounds. They are hunted by residents of western Alaska coastal villages for food and hides. Spotted seals can reach weights of 270 pounds and bear young on drifting pack ice.

The Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace on March 10 sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for missing its January deadline for a final decision on polar bears.

The conservation groups claim the Bush administration has purposely delayed a decision because a polar bear listing would focus scrutiny on outer continental shelf oil and natural gas leases in polar bear habitat off Alaska's coast.

They also say a polar bear recovery plan required under the law would trigger agency review of new sources of greenhouse gases that contribute to warming.

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