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NOAA Could Classify Seals As Endangered Species

September 30, 2009

The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has just three weeks to decide whether spotted seals, which rely upon sea ice off the coast of Alaska, should be classified as a threatened or endangered species.

The agency also agreed to decide no later than Nov. 1, 2010, whether ringed seals and bearded seals, both ice-dependent seals, should be listed.

The settlement between NOAA and the Center for Biological Diversity, which had sued to force a decision, was approved on Friday by a U.S. federal judge.

Center spokeswoman Rebecca Noblin said the group was happy that NOAA had set the deadlines for a decision given that this year’s summer sea ice minimum was the third-lowest since satellite measurements began in 1979.

“The quicker we can get protection for these seals, the better,” she told the Associated Press on Monday.

Federal agencies are required by law to consider how their regulatory decisions affect listed and threatened species.

Last December, NOAA denied listing ribbon seals as threatened or endangered, citing climate models that projected annual ice for the seals would continue to form each winter during the birthing and molting period.

The Center for Biological Diversity had sued to reverse that decision.

John Kurland, NOAA’s acting deputy regional administrator, said the agency has been studying spotted, ringed and bearded seals. Spotted seals, he said, had a comparable distribution and an information overlap with ribbon seals.

Data on the other two types of seals is more complex, and the extra time will allow NOAA to incorporate information compiled by the state of Alaska, he added.

Ringed, bearded and spotted seals, which all live in the Bering, Chukchi or Beaufort seas off Alaska’s western and northern coasts, use sea ice in different ways for giving birth, rearing their young and resting.

The Center for Biological Diversity had petitioned to list the seals in May 2008, the same month that former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne listed polar bears as threatened due to a loss of sea ice.

When NOAA missed the one-year deadline for its decision, the environmental group sued.

Spotted seals use the edge of sea ice, far away from predators, to give birth and nurse their pups.  Loss of sea ice and premature ice breakup threaten their capacity to rear their young, according to the petition.

Ringed seals, the only seals that can live in completely ice-covered waters, are the primary prey of polar bears.  The seals use their sturdy claws to dig and maintain breathing holes, and create snow caves on sea ice to make insulated shelters for themselves and their pups.

Early breakup of the sea ice threatens lairs during vital rearing times, when pups are too young to survive in water, said the Center. Warming can also expose lairs and make pups vulnerable to polar bears and Arctic foxes.

Bearded seals birth and rear their pups on drifting pack ice over shallow waters, where prey is plentiful.  As the ice retreats from shallow shelves the availability of food declines, the environmental group argued.

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