ANCHORAGE - The National Marine Fisheries Service will conduct a full status review of three Arctic seals, focusing more attention on the plight of species that depend on sea ice for survival.
The agency said Thursday it found merit in an environmental group's petition to list ringed, bearded and spotted seals as candidates for threatened or endangered species protection because of global warming.
Ringed seals are the main prey of polar bears. A spokesman for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has sued to overturn the listing of polar bears as a threatened species, said the state has not reviewed the population status of ice seals or threats to their populations.
"We don't have a position yet," Doug Vincent-Lang, the state's endangered species coordinator.
Shaye Wolf of the Center for Biological Diversity, lead author of the listing petition, said it was filed for the same reason her group sought a polar bear listing: the dramatic loss of Arctic Ocean sea ice.
"These seals are completely dependent on sea ice for giving birth and rearing their pups," Wolf said. "As the sea ice melts away beneath them, seal pups get separated from their moms and are forced to enter the icy water before they're big enough and strong enough to survive."
NMFS is a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages most marine mammals, including seals and whales.
The Interior Department oversees walrus and polar bears and in May placed polar bears on the list of threatened species because of the dramatic loss of bear habitat, sea ice.
Arctic sea ice last summer shrunk to about 1.65 million square miles, nearly 40 percent less than the long-term average between 1979 and 2000.
Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center said last week that Arctic Ocean sea ice this year has melted to the second-lowest minimum since satellite observations began and could set a new record low before freezing resumes at the end of this month.
Most climate modelers have predicted a continued downward spiral in summer sea ice.
"The science of global warming and the threats that it poses to seals and polar bears is absolutely clear," Wolf said. "The Arctic is experiencing this unprecedented sea ice loss and these species are struggling to keep up."
The nation is at risk of losing both polar bears and ice seals if immediate action is not taken to address global warming, she said.
All three seals live in the Bering, Chukchi or Beaufort seas off Alaska's western and northern coasts.
Ringed seals are the main prey of polar bears. They're the most numerous of the seals that live off Alaska's coasts and the only seals that can survive in completely ice-covered waters.
They do so by digging out breathing holes in the ice with an adaptation on their front flippers - unusually stout claws - that allow them to excavate ice.
Holes dug by ringed seals eventually get covered by drifting snow. Within the drift, females dig out lairs to give birth and nurse pups. Pups stay on ice as their mothers dive below the ice to feed on fish and crustaceans.
With warming, ice and snow on top of sea ice can disintegrate during critical rearing times, making pups vulnerable to predation by polar bears and Arctic foxes.
Pups also are susceptible to temperature stresses until they grow a blubber layer and shed their lanugo, the white, wooly coat they're born with.
Bearded seals are the largest true seals off Alaska's coast and can reach weights of more than 750 pounds, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. They are sought by subsistence hunters in Alaska for hides and meat. Bearded seals reproduce and rest on drifting pack ice.
Spotted seals are strongly associated with sea ice from autumn to late spring and bear young on drifting pack ice, according to state biologists.
Vincent-Lang, the state's endangered species coordinator, said the state objects to the polar bear listing in part because it contends there is no direct evidence that Alaska or world polar bear populations have declined.
The state also takes issue with the conclusion that polar bears could be endangered within the "foreseeable future," one of the thresholds for a protective listing. Federal regulators put that period at 45 years, or three generations of polar bears. The state calls that number arbitrary.
Palin, picked as John McCain's GOP running mate, and other Alaska elected officials fear the polar bear listing will cripple offshore oil and gas development in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
The NMFS decision Thursday kicks off a 60-day public comment period. The agency has until May 28, or one year after the original petition filing date, to complete its review and to propose or reject a listing for the seals.
The agency could propose listing seals as "endangered" which means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. "Threatened" means a species is likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future.