Arctic Seals Get Federal Protection

     WASHINGTON (CN) - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced its final listing decision for four subspecies of ringed seals and two distinct population segments of bearded seals under the Endangered Species Act in two final rules.
     The regulations list the Beringia and Okhotsk segments of bearded seals, as well as the Arctic, Okhotsk and Baltic subspecies of ringed seals as threatened under the act. The Ladoga subspecies of ringed seals is listed as endangered.
     Shrinking ice and snow cover from climate change has affected all of these ice-dependant Arctic seals, the rule said.
     "Ringed seals nurse and protect their pups in snow caves, which are threatened by late ice formation in the fall, rain-on-snow events in the late winter, earlier break-up of spring ice, as well as decreasing snow depths, which are projected to be too shallow for snow cave formation by the end of the century," the agency said in a statement. "Both ringed seals and bearded seals rely on sea ice for extended periods during molting, and bearded seals live on sea ice during critical months for breeding, whelping, and nursing. Sea ice is projected to shrink both in extent and duration, with bearded seals finding inadequate ice even if they move north."
     The NOAA received more than 5,000 comments through extended comment periods and three public meetings in Alaska. Independent peer groups reviewed both regulations, according to the rules. A comprehensive scientific review, including climate models developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, contributed to the NOAA's conclusion that sea ice and snow cover are projected to decrease further in the future and threaten the survival of the seals, the agency said.
     "This summer Arctic sea-ice extent hit a troubling new record low, falling to half its average size," NOAA said in a statement. "At that pace summer sea ice across the Arctic is likely to disappear entirely in the next 10 to 20 years, while the seals' winter sea-ice habitat in the Bering Sea off Alaska is projected to decline at least 40 percent by 2050."
     For now, the listings will not hinder Native Alaskans from the subsistence harvest of ice seals, "a practice that is central to the traditional culture and nutrition in many Alaskan Native coastal communities," the agency noted.
     The NOAA plans to work with the public and local, state and Native partners to decide if it will propose critical habitat for Arctic ringed seals and the Beringia segments of bearded seals at a later time, the agency said.
     Its rules stem from a court's resolution of a 2009 lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity.
     For more information on these two rules, click the document icon.