U.S. Proposes to Categorize Ringed and Bearded Seals as "Threatened"

Bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus).  Source: NOAA.

Above: Bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus). Source: NOAA.

The U.S. government proposed yesterday (3 Dec 2010) to list four subspecies of ringed seals and two populations of bearded seals -- all in the Arctic region -- as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The primary threats cited in the proposals are rapid warming of the Arctic combined with ocean acidification -- both driven by rising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. The proposals were made in two notices (one for each species) submitted by the National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA's Fisheries Service) for publication soon in the Federal Register. Once published (probably on 8 December) a sixty day public review period will occur, followed by issuance of final listings.

Responding to yesterday's proposed listings, WWF arctic species expert Geoff York says:

Listing these animals as threatened underscores what we have been saying. The entire arctic sea ice ecosystem is under threat. Not just these animals, but whole food webs are threatened by the shrinkage of summer sea ice. The only effective action we can take to stop this destruction of the Arctic marine ecosystem is to reduce the emission of gases causing global warming. We hope that governments meeting for climate negotiations right now in Cancun are paying attention.”

Each of yesterday's proposed listings was supported by a "status review" that is a "compilation of the best scientific and commercial data available concerning the status of the species, including the past, present, and future threats..."

The proposed listings were in response to a petition [PDF] filed on 28 May 2008 by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) calling upon the Secretary of Commerce (who oversees NOAA) to list ringed, bearded, and spotted seals as threatened or endangered.

The Fisheries Service determined that the bearded seal consists of two subspecies, Erignathus barbatus nauticus and Erignathus barbatus barbatus, and that the former consists of two distinct populations. The notice says that E.b.barbatus "is not in danger of extinction or likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future. However, it says that both populations of E.b.nauticus "are likely to become endangered throughout all or a significant portion of their ranges in the foreseeable future."

Similarly, the Fisheries Service found that four of the five subspecies of the ringed seal "are likely to become endangered throughout all or a significant portion of their range in the foreseeable future."  The fifth of the subspecies, the Saimaa in Finland has been listed as endangered under the ESA since 1993.

For both the bearded and the ringed seals, each of the two "status reviews" (issued along with the notices yesterday) said:

"Warming—driven by greenhouse gas emissions—is accelerated in the Arctic by positive feedbacks including reduced albedo. Recent reductions in the areal extent of sea ice have contributed strongly to the reduction in albedo, meaning more heat is retained by the ocean and earth’s surface. Current atmospheric levels of greenhouse gases are sufficient to continue warming the climate and diminishing ice and snow cover throughout the century."

The Status Review of the Bearded Seal then said:

"Changes to the ice habitat of bearded seals are forecast to be rapid relative to generation time, challenging the species’  ability to respond adaptively. Bearded seal populations may be impacted directly by effects of diminishing ice cover on their rates of survival and reproduction. Indirect effects may result from changes in biological community composition as consequences of ocean warming and acidification."

In the Status Review of the Ringed Seal, NOAA concluded:

"The changes to the ice and snow habitats of ringed seals are forecasted to be rapid relative to generation time, challenging the species’ability to respond adaptively. Ringed seal populations will be impacted indirectly through changes in biological community composition as consequences of ocean and lake warming and acidification. Direct effects will result from diminishing ice and snow cover."

Just a year ago, on 14 December 2009, the  International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) issued a  Species and Climate Change report that featured a "hit list" of ten species being hardest hit by climate change -- including ringed seals. See the IUCN fact sheet on Ringed Seals and Climate Change [PDF].

Report co-author Wendy Foden in a press release issued by IUCN on 14 December 2009 said:   "This report should act as a wake-up call to governments to make real commitments to cut CO2 emissions if we are to avoid a drastically changed natural world. We simply don’t have the time for drawn-out political wrangling. We need strong commitments and we need them now.”

Ringed seal (Phoca hispida).  Source: National Marine Mammal Laboratory

Above: Ringed seal (Phoca hispida). Source: National Marine Mammal Laboratory

Rebecca Noblin, the CBD's Alaska director said yesterday that sharply reducing greenhouse gas emissions "can restore Arctic sea ice and preserve a planet that still contains wonders such as polar bears, walruses and ice seals.”

Just ten days before yesterday's proposed listings were issued, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on 24 November designated nearly 485,000 sq km (over 187,000 sq mi) as critical habitat for polar bears under the Endangered Species Act. Noting that "the greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of its sea ice habitat caused by human-induced climate change," Tom Strickland, Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, said that "we will continue to work toward comprehensive strategies for the long-term survival of this iconic species." (see our blog posting, Citing Threat of Climate Change, U.S. Designates Nearly 187,000 Square Miles as "Critical Habitat" for Polar Bears).

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), within the Department of the Interior, shares with NOAA Fisheries responsibility for implementing the Endangered Species Act.  The FWS is under court order to decide by Dec. 23 whether polar bears should receive a higher level of protection as “endangered” rather than their current “threatened” status. The Fish and Wildlife Service must also decide by Jan. 31, 2011, whether the Pacific walrus warrants protection under the Act.

Above: In this video from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, scientists catch a 2-3 year old female ring seal and place a transmitter on her rear flipper. The device will periodically transmit the seal's coordinates to a satellite, data that then are available to scientists who can track the seal's movement. Such information is vital to their understanding of the seal's breeding and migration patterns. The data ultimately can be used to inform decisions about managing and protecting the species. The video was filmed by University of Alaska students, and edited by Tyson Hansen and Maya Salganek. It was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Small Portion of Spotted Seal Population listed as Threatened in October 2010

Spotted seal (Phoca largha).  Source: NOAA Fisheries.

Above: Spotted seal (Phoca largha). Source: NOAA Fisheries.

Last year (15 October 2009), the Fisheries Service announced that it would not list as threatened or endangered the two distinct populations of Spotted seals that together account for most (200,000) of the spotted seals (the Bering Sea population; and population in the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk).  It did, however, propose listing a smaller population of spotted seals (3,300) in Liaodong Bay, China and Peter the Great Bay, Russia.  

On 21 October 2010 it listed  that smaller population as threatened (see NOAA Lists Population of Spotted Seals as Threatened, 21 October 2010). According to the final rule, the main concern about the conservation status of that population "stems from observed changes in its sea ice habitat which are likely the result of the warming climate and, more so, that the scientific consensus projections are for continued and perhaps accelerated warming and sea ice decline in the foreseeable future. A second related concern is the modification of habitat by ocean acidification, which may alter prey populations and other important aspects of the marine ecosystem."

Spotted seal (Phoca largha).  Source: National Marine Mammal Laboratory

Above: Spotted seal (Phoca largha). Source: National Marine Mammal Laboratory

Online Resources

NOAA Proposes Listing Ringed and Bearded Seals as Threatened Under Endangered Species Act. Press release (3 Dec 2010) from NOAA Fisheries. Related NOAA documents:

Center for Biological Diversity:

NOAA Will Not List Two Spotted Seals Populations as Endangered or Threatened. Press release (15 October 2009) from NOAA Fisheries. See also proposed rule.

NOAA Lists Population of Spotted Seals as Threatened. Press release (21 October 2010) from NOAA Fisheries. Related NOAA documents:


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