In response to a court ordered deadline, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that two species of Arctic seals threatened by a loss of sea ice will be getting much needed protection under the Endangered Species Act.
The listing was finalized just in time to meet a deadline of December 21, that was imposed as a result of a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity. NOAA proposed protection in response to a petition in 2010 and threatened status should have been finalized this June, but it never got done.
“Our scientists undertook an extensive review of the best scientific and commercial data. They concluded that a significant decrease in sea ice is probable later this century and that these changes will likely cause these seal populations to decline,” Jon Kurland, protected resources director for NOAA Fisheries’ Alaska region, said in a statement. “We look forward to working with the State of Alaska, our Alaska Native co-management partners, and the public as we work toward designating critical habitat for these seals.”
The listing will include two distinct populations of bearded seals and four subspecies of ringed seals who inhabit Alaska, parts of Russia and Canada. Both species rely on ice to live, hunt, give birth and nurse their pups, while pups need it to be able to molt and build up enough blubber to keep them warm in the cold water. Ringed seals need ice caves to protect their young from freezing and predation.
This September, sea ice receded to record low levels: 18 percent smaller than the previous record and nearly 50 percent smaller than the long-term (1979-2000) average, according to NOAA.
As the agency describes it, “It can be hard to imagine how radical a transformation the loss of so much ice is. Most of us live in a world where snow and ice are transient things, momentarily hiding the “real” landscape. In the Arctic, ice is the real landscape, and for it to have shrunk to half its historic summer extent is as much a transformation of the environment as if half the forests of New England had been replaced by Saguaro cactus.”
The decision to list seals won’t immediately restrict human activities, but it will impact decisions about any future projects that could affect these seals and prevent federal actions that could further jeopardize them, in addition to including habitat protection and recovery planning.
“Arctic animals face a clear danger of extinction from climate change,” said Shaye Wolf, the Center’s climate science director, in a statement. “The Endangered Species Act offers strong protections for these seals, but we can’t save the Arctic ecosystem without confronting the broader climate crisis. The Obama administration has to take decisive action, right now, against greenhouse gas pollution to preserve a world filled with ice seals, walruses and polar bears.”
Photo credit: Thinkstock