ANCHORAGE, Alaska — The federal government has rejected an endangered species listing for a seal species that relies on sea ice for molting and reproducing.
The National Marine Fisheries Service announced Tuesday that it has rejected listing ribbon seals as a threatened or endangered species despite evidence that its habitat is impacted by climate change.
Ribbon seals are found in the Bering and Chukchi (Chuk-CHEE') seas off Alaska and in the Sea of Okhotsk (oh-KOTSK') off Russia. They are not in danger of disappearing under the time limits required for listing in the Endangered Species Act, a spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said.
"NOAA's status review concluded that the anticipated threats to ribbon seals, primarily from reductions in sea ice and disrupted prey communities, will result in a gradual decline in ribbon seal population abundance," said Julie Speegle in the announcement. "However, this decline is not expected to render the species in danger of extinction within the foreseeable future."
The agency also rejected a listing for ribbon seals in December 2008. Attorney Rebecca Noblin of the Center for Biological Diversity, which with Greenpeace sued for reconsideration, said the agency acknowledges that the seals could be in serious trouble in the Sea of Okhotsk. Continued sea ice loss also threatens them in the Bering Sea, she said.
"We disagreed that loss of sea ice in the Bering Sea is not going to be a problem in the foreseeable future," she said. "We think the sea ice models show that ribbon seals are losing sea ice at critical times in the spring."
Federal biologists estimate the ribbon seal population at 200,000 to 300,000.
During summer and fall, ribbon seals live entirely in the water, foraging on fish, squid and crustaceans. From March through June, the seals use loose pack ice for pupping and molting and as a platform for foraging.
Ribbon seals give birth and nurse pups, which cannot swim, exclusively on sea ice. Newborn ribbon seals have a coat of soft, white hair called lanugo that provides insulation until they grow a thick layer of blubber. Pups can survive submersion in icy water only after growing a blubber layer.
During molting, new hair can only grow when ribbon seals are out of the water where skin can reach higher temperatures.
NOAA Fisheries in December added two other ice-dependent seals to the threatened species list – ringed seals, the main prey of polar bears, and bearded seals, which give birth and rear pups on pack ice drifting over shallow water where crab and other prey is abundant.
Jon Kurland, NOAA Fisheries' assistant regional administrator for protected resources, said each species of ice-associated seal has different habitat requirements.
"Ribbon seals are fairly adaptable," he said in the announcement. "Their diet is diverse, they feed over a wide range of depths, and there is evidence that they may compensate for changes in sea ice by moving to other habitats in which they are still able to feed and reproduce, in contrast to ringed and bearded seals which are more specialized and are not expected to do as well with changes in sea ice."
A spokesman for the state of Alaska, Doug Vincent-Lang, said the state applauds the decision.
"This decision begins to bring some rationality to the recent misapplication of the ESA that has resulted in the precautionary listing of currently abundant and robust species based on speculated and unproven climate related impacts over century timeframes," he said by email. "We stand ready to assist the NMFS in defense of this decision if it is challenged."