- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2008

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A federal agency said yesterday that it will consider listing four species of ice seals as endangered, a move hailed by an environmental group that pushed for it as government recognition that Arctic marine life is threatened by climate change.

The National Marine Fisheries Service accepted a petition seeking threatened or endangered status for ribbon seals, which have been losing habitat as sea ice recedes. The agency also expanded the status review to include ringed, spotted and bearded seals.

“While the four species of ice seals in Alaska all utilize various types of sea ice habitats, they use the ice in different ways,” said Doug Mecum, the agency’s acting administrator for the Alaska region. “Therefore, careful status reviews of each species is warranted.”

Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity and the lead author of the listing petition, said she was surprised by the agency’s action, given that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is 2½ months overdue on a final decision to list polar bears.

Last summer, Arctic ice shrank to an area that was 27 percent smaller than the previous record. In September, a series of reports from the U.S. Geological Survey predicted that as much as two-thirds of the polar bear population could disappear by the middle of the century because of the loss of summer sea ice attributed to climate change.

“The science is really clear that all of the seals are threatened by global warming by the loss of sea ice, and they all need protection,” Miss Wolf said.

Miss Wolf’s California-based group contends that in a warming Arctic, remaining winter sea ice will be thinner and unlikely to last long enough for ribbon seals to finish rearing their pups.

Federal officials have nine months to complete a full status review of ribbon seals. If agency officials propose listing ribbon seals as threatened or endangered, they would have a year to collect additional data and public testimony before the deadline for a final decision.

Listing a species would trigger a recovery plan that could address suspected U.S. causes of climate change or other activity that could hurt the seals, such as offshore oil and gas development.

Ribbon seals during summer and fall live in water and feed on fish, squid and crustaceans in the Bering and Chukchi seas. From March through June, ribbon seals rely on loose pack ice in the Bering and Okhotsk seas for reproduction and molting.

Ribbon seals birth and nurse pups exclusively on sea ice. Newborn ribbon seals have a coat of soft, white hair that provides insulation until they grow a thick layer of blubber. Pups can survive submersion in icy water only after they have formed the blubber layer.

Ringed seals are the smallest and most numerous of the seals that thrive off Alaska’s coasts and are the primary prey of polar bears. Ringed seals can survive in ice-covered waters by digging out breathing holes.

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