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For Immediate Release, December 12, 2011

Contact:  Rebecca Noblin, (907) 274-1110

Endangered Species Act Protection for Ice-dependent Arctic Seals Improperly Delayed

ANCHORAGE, Alaska— Despite clear scientific evidence that the sea ice Arctic seals need to survive is melting beneath them, the National Marine Fisheries Service today announced it is delaying Endangered Species Act protections for ringed and bearded seals. Slated to be listed as threatened under the Act this week, the seals must now wait another six months to receive the protections they desperately need.

“There’s no question that rapid Arctic warming poses a grave threat to these seals,” said Center for Biological Diversity Alaska Director Rebecca Noblin. “The longer we wait to tackle the greenhouse gases that are destroying ringed and bearded seals’ Arctic home, the harder it’s going to be to save these remarkable animals. Ringed and bearded seals need the protections of the Endangered Species Act yesterday.”

Ringed seals, which are the primary food for polar bears, excavate snow caves on top of sea ice to create protected shelters for nursing pups. As the Arctic warms, the sea ice is breaking up earlier, and rain is falling on snow, causing snow caves to collapse and leading to the deaths of pups.

Bearded seals, distinctive for their mustachioed appearance and elaborate courtship songs, give birth and nurse their pups on pack ice. The rapid loss of pack ice jeopardizes their ability to raise their young and is lowering the abundance of the seals’ food on their shallow foraging grounds in the Arctic.

This summer, Arctic sea ice approached its lowest level ever. The seals’ winter sea-ice habitat in the Arctic is projected to decline by at least 40 percent by 2050, while summer sea ice across the region has been projected to disappear entirely in the next 20 years. Compounding the danger, in recent months hundreds of sick or dead ringed seals with skin lesions have been discovered off Alaska’s North Slope, as well as Canada and Russia. A few bearded seals have been affected as well.

These seals also face threats from proposed offshore oil and gas development off Alaska, where an oil spill in icy waters would be impossible to clean up. The Obama administration is moving forward with a Bush-era plan to drill in seal habitat there.

“An entire Arctic ecosystem hangs in the balance,” said Noblin. “Losing sea ice means losing Arctic seals, and losing Arctic seals means losing polar bears. The consequences of our thirst for fossil fuels are complex and far-reaching. If we don’t switch to cleaner sources of energy immediately, we’re looking at losing the Arctic as we know it.”

Ringed and bearded seals were proposed for Endangered Species Act listing in December 2010, following the Center’s 2008 petition to the Fisheries Service. Under today’s decision, the Fisheries Service will finalize its listing decision by June 10, 2012. The listing would not affect Alaska natives’ subsistence harvest, which is exempted generally from the Act’s prohibitions.

Separately today, pursuant to a settlement agreement with the Center, the Fisheries Service announced that it will conduct a new status review to determine whether a third Arctic seal, the ribbon seal, warrants listing under the Endangered Species Act. The Service denied listing for ribbon seals in 2009, but the scientific case for listing continues to grow as the seals’ sea ice disappears more and more rapidly.

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