Vol. 25, No.49 Week of December 06, 2020
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

NMFS declines request to delist ringed seal by state, NSB, ASRC

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Alan Bailey

for Petroleum News

In a 90-day finding over a petition to delist the Arctic ringed seal as threatened under the terms of the Endangered Species Act, the National Marine Fisheries Service has upheld its listing of the seals. The State of Alaska, the North Slope Borough, the Arctic Slope Regional Corp. and the Inupiat Community of the Arctic Slope launched the petition in 2019. NMFS originally listed the seals in 2012.

Dependent on sea ice

The ringed seal is one of several Arctic animal species that depend on an Arctic sea ice habitat and that may, therefore, be at risk because of sea ice loss as a result of climate change. However, there is controversy regarding the reliability of long-term climate forecasts, and hence the ice-loss predictions used in listing decisions. People also question what the actual impacts of sea ice loss on the impacted species will turn out to be.

Opponents of the ringed seal listing argue that the listing will have negative impacts on Alaska’s economy and the subsistence economy of Alaska Natives.

The listing has already been challenged through the courts. In 2016 the federal District Court in Alaska upheld three appeals against the listing, saying that the current seal population was healthy and that it was unreasonable to speculate on conditions that may exist 80 to 100 years into the future. However, in 2018 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned the District Court decision, saying that the NMFS view that the seals are likely to become endangered was reasonable and was supported by the record presented to the courts.

New data since listing

The petition that triggered the new 90-day filing argued that an analysis of new data that have become available in the last six years, coupled with a re-analysis of previous data, have indicated that there is a continuing abundant population of Arctic ringed seals; that there is no evidence of any decline in the health of the animals, despite the shrinkage of the sea ice habitat; and that the best available scientific evidence demonstrates that the seals are resilient to changing habitat conditions.

However, in rejecting the petition, NMFS has argued that recent research findings remain consistent with the data used in support of its 2012 listing decision. For example, although more recent climate change projections have differed from the projections used in making the decision, the decision considered the uncertainties in those projections. And, although a recent study has indicated that observed changes in sea ice extent and duration have not resulted in corresponding drops in seal population or health, the original listing finding did not assume that the long-term impacts of climate change on the seals would be detectable in the near future, NFMS argued. Moreover, the observed declines in habitat cited in the petition do not represent the anticipated impacts of the climate warming across the 21st century, NMFS said.

Other factors relating to the listing, challenged by the petition but upheld by NMFS, include the potential for increased seal predation as the sea ice extent shrinks; questions regarding the extent to which global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may impact global warming; and views on the potential impacts on the seals from manmade factors such as commercial fishing, as the climate warms.

State expresses disappointment

In a Nov. 25 press release, the State of Alaska expressed its disappointment with the NMFS finding.

“Ongoing research, along with traditional knowledge compiled since the listing shows no evidence of declines in ringed seal populations,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang. “The seals are handling current environmental changes well. ESA listings should be reserved for imperiled species. It is difficult to believe that a species with a healthy, robust population that numbers in the millions can be considered threatened with extinction.”

The state says that the extent of the proposed critical habitat for the seals would encompass an area greater than the extent of the states of California, Oregon and Washington combined, including the coastlines of the Chukchi, Beaufort and northern Bering Seas.


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