Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, October 4, 2023


David Derrick, (513) 886-0044,

Lawsuit Launched to Protect Ringed, Bearded Seals in the Arctic

WASHINGTON— The Center for Biological Diversity filed a formal notice today of its intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service for failing to protect Arctic ice seals. The ringed seal and the bearded seal were both listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2012, but neither has received a recovery plan as the law requires.

Both seal species rely on sea ice to give birth, nurse and rear pups. Their future is jeopardized by a warming climate caused by the burning of fossil fuels and melting sea ice.

“It makes me sick that we’ve known these seals are in danger for more than a decade, but the agency hasn’t made a plan to deal with it,” said David Derrick, an attorney at the Center. “Helping a species recover to a healthy population requires some kind of roadmap. Not drafting a recovery plan is akin to just telling these seals ‘good luck out there!’ It’s outrageous and it’s illegal.”

Ringed seals and bearded seals face many threats, including ocean acidification, pollution from shipping, and oil and gas activity such as the recently approved Willow project in Alaska’s Western Arctic Reserve. Willow and other fossil fuel extraction projects threaten the seals with harmful noise pollution and oil spills and add to the human-caused greenhouse gas emissions already melting their only habitat.

The Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the globe, and the region may be free from summer ice as soon as 2035. Without sea ice, the seals will struggle to molt or raise their pups.

The law requires the Service to conduct a review of all listed species every five years, based on the best available science. But the agency has never reviewed the ice seals’ status. Today’s notice informs the agency that its failure to complete these reviews is unlawful.

Studies show that developing and implementing a recovery plan leads to better outcomes for endangered and threatened species. Recovery plans describe a set of actions that can prevent an animal or plant from going extinct, and these plans are crucial to measuring the success of conservation efforts.

“In the last decade we’ve seen more planet-warming emissions than ever before, and conditions are constantly getting worse for these seals,” Derrick said. “The federal government needs to take melting ice into account when considering the threats the animals face.”

The Center petitioned to protect both seal species in 2008, and in 2012 the Service listed them as threatened.

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

Ringed seals, which are covered in dark spots surrounded by light gray rings, give birth in snow caves built on top of sea ice. Global warming is reducing the amount of snowpack, causing caves to collapse and leaving pups vulnerable to death by freezing or from predators.

Listing the seals does not affect subsistence harvest of the species by Alaska Natives.

RSRingedSeal_NatlMarineMammalLaboratory_FPWC (1)
Ringed seal, Pusa hispida, (c) National Marine Mammal Laboratory/NOAA Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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