SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - March 21 - Today the Center for Biological Diversity notified the National Marine Fisheries Service of its intent to file suit against the agency for missing the first deadline in the Endangered Species Act listing process for the ribbon seal, imperiled by global warming and the melting of its sea-ice habitat in the Bering Sea off Alaska.
The Endangered Species Act listing process was initiated by a scientific petition filed by the Center on December 20, 2007. The Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was required to issue an initial determination on the petition within 90 days. Following a positive initial finding on the petition to list the ribbon seal, the Fisheries Service will be required to commence a full status review for the species, the next step in the listing process which precedes the decision whether to propose the species for listing as threatened or endangered.
“The Arctic is in a crisis state from global warming,” said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the ribbon seal petition. “An entire ecosystem is rapidly melting away, and we stand to lose not just the polar bear, but also the ribbon seal and all other ice-dependent species if we do not immediately take action to address global warming.”
The ribbon seal is dependent on Arctic sea ice for survival. During the late winter through early summer, ribbon seals rely on the edge of the sea ice in the Bering and Okhotsk seas off Alaska and Russia as safe habitat for giving birth and as a nursery for their pups. But this winter sea-ice habitat is rapidly disappearing. If current ice-loss trends from global warming continue, the ribbon seal faces likely extinction by the end of the century.
The ribbon seal’s winter sea-ice habitat is projected to decline 40 percent by mid-century under recent greenhouse gas emissions trends. Any remaining sea ice will be much thinner and unlikely to last long enough for ribbon seals to finish rearing their pups, leading to widespread pup mortality. Disturbingly, warming in the Arctic is occurring at a rapid pace that is exceeding the predictions of the most advanced climate models. Summer sea-ice extent in 2007 plummeted to a record minimum, which most climate models forecast would not be reached until 2050.
In addition to loss of its sea-ice habitat from global warming, the ribbon seal faces threats from oil and gas development in its habitat, and the growth of shipping in the increasingly ice-free Arctic. Last month, important summer feeding areas for the ribbon seal in the Chukchi Sea were leased for oil development, while seismic surveys are planned for the area this summer.
“With rapid action to reduce carbon dioxide, methane, and black carbon emissions, combined with a moratorium on new oil-and-gas development and shipping routes in the Arctic, we can still save the ribbon seal, the polar bear, and the entire Arctic ecosystem,” said Brendan Cummings, oceans program director for the Center. “But the window of opportunity to act is closing rapidly.”
While the Fisheries Service has not yet published a finding on the ribbon seal as required by law, on March 13 the agency briefly posted a press release to its Web site entitled “NOAA to Study Ice Seals for Possible Listing under Endangered Species Act.” The press release announced a positive initial finding on the Center’s ribbon seal petition. However, when the Center requested a copy of the finding, a spokesperson for the Fisheries Service stated that the press release had been posted in error and refused to say when the finding would be released. The press release has been removed from the Fisheries Service’s Web site.
“The fact that the Fisheries Service drafted and posted a press release announcing a positive finding on the ribbon seal petition clearly indicates that the scientists have finished their review and believe the species may in fact need the protections of the Endangered Species Act,” said Cummings. “Continued delay in releasing the required finding can only be the result of politics, not science.”
Under the Endangered Species Act, seals, whales, and dolphins are under the jurisdiction of the Fisheries Service, while polar bears and walruses are under the jurisdiction of the Fish and Wildlife Service. The Fish and Wildlife Service is more than two months late in issuing a final rule to protect the polar bear; a decision on the Center’s petition to protect the Pacific walrus is due in May 2008.