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Threatened bearded and ringed seal populations gain protection

Jill Burke
ilovegreenland / flickr

After a two-year wait, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has decided to list bearded and ringed seals under the Endangered Species Act.

The decision is based on a similar climate conditions that led to the listing of the polar bear in 2008. With arctic sea ice shrinking and existing for less of the year, mammals that rely on it can be expected to have a more difficult time surviving.

Ringed and bearded seals that live in U.S. waters, found in Alaska's arctic, are listed as threatened. NOAA has also listed four other subspecies found across the circumpolar north, a move taken to prevent importation to the U.S. from other countries of those seals or their parts. Of the six types of seals listed under the Endangered Species Act by NOAA on Friday, only one – the Lagoda Lake ringed seal, a freshwater species found in Northern Russia – is listed as endangered. All others are categorized as threatened.

Habitat issues for Alaska

The next phase in the process is to evaluate whether the habitat of the seals also requires protection, a topic that in Alaska has already proven to be highly controversial. When 187,000 square miles of onshore and offshore habitat in Northern Alaska was designated as “critical habitat” in 2010, Native communities, corporations and the State of Alaska went into an uproar – arguing in court and to the public that restrictions on human activity in the Arctic had the potential to cause grave economic harm to the people who lived and worked there, and to the promising offshore oil industry.

Indeed, on Friday, the Alaska Oil and Gas Association was already calling the federal decision “flawed” and “misguided.”

“The decision to list ringed and bearded seals is based on how climate change might affect these species 100 years from now, despite their populations currently being healthy and abundant. That's bad precedent for making evidence-based decisions that have real impacts for Alaska,” said Kara Moriarty, executive director for the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, in a prepared statement.

AOGA believes the listing will raise costs and cause delays with oil and gas development.

Citing a recent presidential order, NOAA pledged in its own press release on the listing to take viewpoints like AOGA's seriously when evaluating whether there is a need for critical habitat. “Any potential future critical habitat designation will include a full analysis of economic impact, including impact on jobs, and will strive, to the extent permitted by law, to avoid unnecessary burdens and costs on states, tribes, localities and the private sector,” NOAA stated.

No impact on Native hunting

Yet consideration of human impacts will not allow human economics to trump the survival of ice seals, said NOAA spokesperson Julie Speegle. Rather, federal regulators will be mindful of community needs and look for reasonable solutions that minimize impacts. “We are being very cognizant of the impact that particular actions might have on the economy,” she said.

The listing will have no impact on hunting of the seals by Alaska Natives, who harvest the mammals' meat for food and the skin for clothing, crafts and artwork.

A 60-day public comment period on critical habitat begins in late December.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com