NOAA Denies Petition to Delist Arctic Ringed Seals

A ringed seal pup. (Shawn Dahle/NOAA)

(CN) — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Wednesday it would decline to delist the Arctic subspecies of ringed seals from the Endangered Species Act listing, citing a lack of evidence the creatures have recovered. 

“We find that the petition and information readily available in our files does not present new information or analyses that had not been previously considered and therefore does not present substantial scientific or commercial information indicating that the petitioned action may be warranted,” the agency said in a 90-day petition finding published on the federal register. 

Despite Wednesday’s denial, the agency did vow to undertake a five-year review to update the science relating to the endangered seal. 

The subspecies of ringed seals live amid the vast stretches of Arctic sea ice-flecked Alaska coastline, which is being rapidly altered due to accelerated melting of the sea ice as a result of increasing global temperatures. 

Ringed seals are characterized by dark spots surrounded by light grey rings and are vital prey for polar bears and killer whales. Indigenous Arctic peoples also consider ringed seals as one of the primary staples of their diet.

There are an estimated 2 million Arctic ringed seals worldwide, according to NOAA, but no accurate estimate exists. 

Environmental groups hailed NOAA’s decision Wednesday, saying it was necessary to stave off steep population declines brought about by climate change. 

“This recommendation underscores the strong scientific evidence showing that climate change threatens the ringed seals’ existence,” said Kristen Monsell, ocean legal director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Even the Trump administration can’t deny that these adorable little seals need the protections of the Endangered Species Act.”

The Arctic subspecies of ringed seals was first listed in 2012, during the Barack Obama administration. The state of Alaska along with the American Petroleum Institute sued at the time but, the Ninth Circuit upheld the listing. Both entities were on the petition that asked the federal agency to review the listing.

The Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope also signed onto the petition asking for delisting, saying the application of endangered species protections to the animal made it difficult for the Alaskan Native American tribe to fish a species they have hunted for innumerable generations. 

The Trump administration agreed to a deal with the Center for Biological Diversity to preserve vast swaths of Arctic sea ice and Alaskan coastline for the ringed seal, and its cousin the bearded seal, which also roams the habitat. 

Environmental fights in and around Alaska have been a constant during the Trump administration, with closely watched natural resource extraction projects proposed for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Tongass National Forest and Bristol Bay. 

The Center for Biological Diversity said stopping those projects, particularly those that call for oil and gas extraction, are a key to preserve the ringed seal population levels. 

“The feds must stop approving drilling in their Arctic habitat,” Monsell said. 

With Trump’s loss and impending exit from the White House, many of those fights are likely to shift to favor environmentalists and those opposed to oil and gas extraction. But those fights could always swing back depending on who occupies the White House four years and 52 days from now. 

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