NOAA Proposes Critical Habitat For Ringed Seals

A federal agency has proposed about 350,000 square miles of ocean off Alaska’s north and west coasts as critical habitat for the seal that’s the main prey of polar bears.

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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced today that it’s proposing much of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas within U.S. jurisdiction as critical habitat for ringed seals.

Shaye Wolf is the climate science director of the Center for Biological Diversity. She says the habitat proposal is the largest in history.

“We know that species that have critical habitat are twice as likely that species without it to be recovering,” Wolf said. “So we know that critical habitat works.”

A critical-habitat designation means federal agencies that authorize activities there must consult with NOAA Fisheries to determine the effects on seals. Wolf says the designation wouldn’t ban oil and gas drilling, but it does require the permitting agencies to take extra precautions to ensure drilling won’t harm the seal’s habitat.

But Senator Lisa Murkowski criticized the size of the proposed critical habitat area. In a news release she said she is concerned, “this designation would severely impact any economic development.”

The seals were declared threatened in December 2012 because of the loss of sea ice from climate warming. Ringed seals use sea ice for breeding and molting.

The agency will take public comment on the proposed critical-habitat designation for 90 days.