In the latest chapter of an ongoing debate over the status of Arctic ringed seals, the state of Alaska has petitioned the federal government to take the seals off the list of threatened species under the Endangered Species Act.
Ringed seals were added to the list back in 2012 because their sea ice habitat is expected to decline significantly in the coming years as the Arctic warms. A species can be designated “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act if it’s likely to become endangered in the foreseeable future through much of its range.
But in its petition, the state says that new research and re-analysis of prior data shows that ringed seals are doing well despite documented sea ice loss, and are likely to adapt to changing habitat conditions.
“They’re the most abundant marine mammal in the Arctic, there’s millions of them, and they’re a very resilient marine mammal as far as we can tell,” said Chris Krenz, the wildlife science coordinator for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Krenz said that the “threatened” designation could create hindrances for oil and gas development, as well as for subsistence hunters.
Three North Slope entities are listed as partners in the state’s petition: the North Slope Borough, Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and the Iñupiat Community of the Arctic Slope.
Subsistence hunting is generally exempt from restrictions under the Endangered Species Act, although the government can put regulations in place if they find that a hunt materially and negatively affects a species protected by the act. There are currently no such regulations for ringed seals, and federal government officials say there are no plans to put any in place.
The National Marine Fisheries Service — the agency responsible for threatened marine species — says that they have 90 days from when the state’s petition was filed to assess it and determine if they need to review the ringed seals’ listing.
The petition comes shortly after an environmental group filed a notice of intent to sue the same agency for not doing enough to protect Arctic ringed seals. They’re pushing NMFS to designate critical habitat for the species in Alaska.
Miyoko Sakashita is with the Center for Biological Diversity, the group that filed the notice. She disagrees with the state’s scientific conclusions and said the evidence indicates that ringed seals stand to be negatively impacted by a continued loss of sea ice.
She added that even if ringed seals aren’t showing decline now, the Endangered Species Act should be used to protect animals before they’re at the brink of extinction.
“What it’s intended to do is protect an imperiled species early enough so that you can make sure that there’s still potential for recovery,” Sakashita said.
The state of Alaska, along with the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and other groups, have already challenged the ringed seal’s status in federal court, which ruled against them last year and kept the species protected.
State officials say that the new research and analysis outlined in their petition was not considered by the court in that prior decision.