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CONTACT: Center for Biological Diversity
Kiersten Lippmann, (907) 793-8691
Rare Alaska Freshwater Seals One Step Closer to Endangered Species Act Protection
ANCHORAGE - May 16 - In response to a scientific petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity in November, the federal government announced today that Alaska’s Iliamna Lake seals may need protection under the Endangered Species Act. They are threatened by the development of the proposed Pebble mine as well as by climate change. The National Marine Fisheries Service will now launch a year-long status review of the freshwater seals.
“This is great news for Iliamna Lake seals,” said Kiersten Lippmann, an Alaska-based biologist with the Center. “If these animals are going to survive, we need to protect the only lake they live in — not turn it into a massive industrial zone.”
The unique, little-understood seals are one of only five seal populations in the Northern Hemisphere living exclusively in freshwater, and the only American freshwater seals. They live in the eastern half of Alaska’s largest, deepest body of freshwater, in a pristine wilderness area that’s home to the world’s largest run of sockeye salmon.
“Iliamna Lake seals are an incredible species, and they’re so vulnerable to habitat degradation,” said Lippmann. “I’m really happy to see them a step closer to the help they need to survive.”
Activities related to the proposed Pebble Project, 17 miles upstream from one of the seals’ favorite haul-out spots, would pollute the water, destroy salmon-spawning habitat, and disturb the seals during vulnerable pupping and molting periods. According to a recently released EPA report, Pebble would fill in nearly 100 miles of streams and 4,800 acres of wetlands, devastating salmon habitat. In the event of a mine failure or accident, pollutants and waste from the mine would cause irreversible harm that would continue for centuries.
Human-caused climate change also threatens Iliamna Lake seals and the salmon on which they depend. Ocean acidification and climate warming are progressing rapidly in the Bering Sea; these changes threaten the survival of calcifying plankton that oceangoing salmon need for food. Climate change will also increase precipitation and raise water temperatures, which could eliminate suitable spawning habitat for salmon and wash away their eggs and fry from spawning streams, killing the young.
Until recently there has been little scientific interest in these seals, and as a result scientists remain unsure about many aspects of their biology and behavior. Research is ongoing to determine their species designation, with evidence to date suggesting they may be a distinct population segment of Pacific harbor seals. A full status review will prompt collection and review of the best available scientific information on the Iliamna Lake seals, including their population size, reproductive behavior and habitat use.
Today’s finding that protection of the seals under the Endangered Species Act may be warranted triggers a requirement for federal officials to complete the status review and issue a proposed decision on whether to list the species by Nov. 19, 2013.
Protection of the seals under the Endangered Species Act would not affect subsistence harvest by Alaska natives, which is exempted from the law’s prohibitions.