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Obama Administration Denies Protection to Arctic Seal Threatened by Global Warming

ANCHORAGE - The Obama administration today denied Endangered Species Act protection to Arctic ribbon seals. These seals depend on sea ice in the Bering and Chukchi seas off Alaska and are mainly threatened by global warming and the consequent loss of its sea-ice habitat, as well as dangerous oil development. The decision comes just two weeks after President Obama’s speech on the importance of addressing the climate crisis.

“President Obama’s stirring words about the impending climate disaster don’t do much for ribbon seals,” said the Center for Biological Diversity’s Alaska director Rebecca Noblin. “Without concrete action to protect these seals and other ice-dependent animals, speeches like that are only sending more hot air into the atmosphere.”

While acknowledging that ribbon seals will be harmed by rapidly melting sea ice, the National Marine Fisheries Service decided the species did not qualify for protection because their ultimate disappearance from large portions of their range would somehow not be significant to the species. This is the second time the Service has declined to protect ribbon seals; today’s decision follows a challenge by the Center after the agency’s first denial in 2008.

Ribbon seals are gorgeously patterned residents of the Bering, Chukchi and Okhotsk seas off Alaska and Russia whose survival depends on sea ice. From late winter to early summer, ribbon seals rely on the edge of the sea ice away from predators as a safe haven for giving birth and rearing their pups. But this sea-ice habitat is melting at a rapid pace, vastly outstripping the predictions of climate models. Last summer the Arctic saw its lowest sea-ice minimum on record. Sea-ice loss and early sea-ice breakup threaten ribbon seals’ ability to successfully rear their young by forcing pups to enter the icy Arctic waters before they are big and strong enough to survive.

Ribbon seals are also vulnerable to increasing oil and gas development in the Chukchi Sea and related ship traffic in the Bering Sea. Last year Shell’s attempt to drill in the Chukchi went awry, with a summer of mishaps and mistakes culminating in the grounding of the company’s Kulluk drillship off Alaska’s Kodiak Island. Noise from drillships and other oil-company vessels, along with the possibility of an oil spill, could push ribbon seals over the brink of extinction.

“The Obama administration has struck out twice on saving ribbon seals,” said Noblin. “Tragically, with the way things are looking for Arctic sea ice, this unique seal may not get another chance unless this administration starts making good right away on its promises to cut greenhouse gas emissions.”

Endangered Species Act listing of ribbon seals would offer them greater protections against the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change, as well as oil and gas development. Listing of the seals would not affect subsistence harvest of the species by Alaska natives, which is exempted from the law’s prohibitions.

Read more about the Center’s campaign to protect ribbon seals.


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At the Center for Biological Diversity, we believe that the welfare of human beings is deeply linked to nature - to the existence in our world of a vast diversity of wild animals and plants. Because diversity has intrinsic value, and because its loss impoverishes society, we work to secure a future for all species, great and small, hovering on the brink of extinction. We do so through science, law, and creative media, with a focus on protecting the lands, waters, and climate that species need to survive.

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