NOAA fisheries proposes large Arctic seal critical habitat areas
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NOAA Fisheries has proposed designating critical habitat areas for ringed and bearded seals, two seal species which inhabit Arctic waters off the coast of Alaska. Both species have previously been designated as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The critical habitat areas encompass all U.S. waters of the Chukchi Sea and substantial areas of U.S. waters of the Beaufort and the northern Bering seas, including nearshore waters.
Critical habitat designations can impact the permitting of planned activities within the habitat areas. Opponents of the listings argue that the listings will have negative impacts on Alaska’s economy and the subsistence economy of Alaska Natives. NOAA Fisheries says that the designation of critical habitat would not impact the subsistence harvest of the seals.
Dependent on sea iceThe seals form part of a series of wildlife species that depend on sea ice habitat and that are, therefore, impacted by the loss of the ice as a consequence of climate change. The question of whether climate change threatens the future survival of a species that is currently abundant remains controversial, since it depends on the reliability of long-term climate change forecasts and issues regarding the extent to which the animals may be able to adapt to the changing Arctic environment. Recent decades have seen a fairly continuous decline in the Arctic sea ice extent, as the climate warms.
NOAA Fisheries says that both seal species use the sea ice for pupping, basking and molting, and for primary prey resources. Bearded seals also use the acoustic conditions in the ice for effective communications for breeding purposes. The proposed critical habitat areas are large, in particular because of the high variability in the sea ice extent and because of the broad distribution of the seals, the fisheries service says.
Listed in 2012The fisheries service listed the ringed and bearded seals in 2012 following a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity. In 2018 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit rejected three appeals against the ringed seal listing. And in December 2020 NOAA Fisheries turned down a petition by the State of Alaska, the North Slope Borough, the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope to delist the ringed seals.
The critical habitat designations follow the settlement of a lawsuit claiming that NOAA Fisheries had not designated the habitat, as required by law, within one year of listing the species under the ESA. The fisheries service had previously designated critical habitat for ringed seals in December 2014 but, given the length of time since that designation, the agency decided to issue a revised proposal for the designation, the agency says.
Comments on the critical habitat designations must be filed with NOAA Fisheries by March 9. And the agency is scheduling public hearings in Alaska.
- ALAN BAILEY