The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week that it wants to list ringed seals found in the Arctic Basin and the North Atlantic as a "threatened" species under that country's Endangered Species Act.
NOAA said projections of melting Arctic sea ice, caused by climate change, pose a long-term threat to the species. It also cited the threat of reduced snow cover.
However, David Akeeagok, Nunavut's deputy environment minister, said ringed seal populations in the Arctic remain healthy. He said the U.S. proposal is based on flimsy predictions about how the seals would respond to changing sea ice conditions.
"Seals, polar bears, they've always been adapt[ing] to change of weather patterns," Akeeagok told CBC News on Wednesday. "This is ... a long-term weather pattern change, and I'm sure that wildlife will be able to adapt to those changes."
Ringed seals are the main prey of polar bears, which were listed as a threatened threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2008.
Gabriel Nirlangayuk, wildlife director with Inuit land-claims organization Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., said the latest U.S. proposal for ringed seals is similar to the bid to make polar bears a threatened species, in that both are based on premature projections.
"A lot of people will be scratching their heads again," said Nirlangayuk, who argued that there are still plenty of ringed seas throughout the Arctic.
Should the proposal go through, the U.S. could impose subsistence hunting restrictions and more trade bans in order to protect the ringed seals.
Trade impact feared
Nunavut officials say the impact of listing ringed seals as a threatened species would not have any immediate effect in Canada, since the U.S. Marine Protection Act already prohibits the import of seal products.
But Akeeagok said he fears the latest move could put a freeze on the global trade of seal products, which would be a major blow to Inuit sealers who have been trying to find new markets for seal pelts and other products worldwide.
"We don't have a market in the U.S., so this does not have a direct impact to Nunavut. But if other countries start using that same methodology in terms of predicting far in the future, and having an impact right now, then that is a concern," Akeeagok said.
Inuit in Nunavut have long hunted seals for food and for pelts that are sold as is or made into clothing.
But Inuit sealers have been engaged in a long battle against the European Union for banning the import of seal products from Canada and other sealing countries.
While Inuit sealers have a limited exemption from the EU ban, they argue the exemptions are vague and come with too many restrictions.
Iqaluit sealing activist Aaju Peter said listing ringed seals as a threatened species in the U.S. would make it harder for Inuit sealers to ship and sell their products in other countries.
"It makes me sick to my stomach because we've been fighting together on the European legislation, and just as we were just hanging in there — hoping that we would be successful — this is another big blow," Peter said.
Peter argued that nobody really knows yet whether ringed seals are actually being threatened by climate change.
In addition to ringed seals, the NOAA also wants to list two populations of bearded seals in the Pacific Ocean as threatened species.