State, NSB challenge ringed seal’s threatened status
By Megan Gannon
The State of Alaska and the North Slope Borough have filed a complaint to remove ringed seals’ federal protections under the Endangered Species Act, arguing that the decision to list the species as threatened was not based in a “rational” application of the law.
The lawsuit was filed on Nov. 16 against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service, or NMFS for short.
“The State is filing this lawsuit to bring rationality back to implementation of the ESA and its regulations,” Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Douglas Vincent-Lang said in a statement. Vincent-Lang argued that ringed seals—the Arctic’s most abundant ice seal, believed to have a population over one million—do not meet the definition of a “threatened species.” When the seals were listed alongside bearded seals in 2012, NMFS reasoned that despite the species’ current abundance, long-term climate projects suggested that they could be devastated by sea ice loss in the future.
The State of Alaska and the North Slope had previously filed a petition in 2020 to delist ringed seals, which was rejected by NMFS. In the new complaint, the plaintiffs argue that their petition should have triggered a 12-month review of the listing based on new science they presented.
“In listing the Arctic ringed seal as a threatened species in 2012, NMFS determined that the principal threat to the species is habitat alteration stemming from climate change, relying heavily on the climate projections in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (2007),” the complaint says. “NMFS failed to evaluate the species’ status using the more recent analysis of projected climate change presented in the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (2013), or to consider scientific data on the responses to ringed seals to observed habitat loss since the 2012 listing.”
At press time on Monday afternoon, NMFS had yet to file a response to the lawsuit.
Earlier this year, NMFS finally designated a “critical habitat” for the ringed seals, or a zone where any activity requiring federal permits or involving federal funding or authorization would be mandated to ensure the seals’ habitats are not harmed. Typically, the federal government is required to outline a critical habitat for a species within a year of an ESA listing, but a decade of legal challenges delayed that step. The designated habitat covers an offshore area roughly the size of Texas, from the Canadian border to St. Matthew Island, excluding a section of the Beaufort Sea the Navy uses for training and testing activities.
For now, the Alaska Native subsistence harvest of ringed is not affected by an Endangered Species Act listing. While the listing of some species, like polar bears, has prompted some Indigenous wildlife co-managers to discuss harvest quotas, the population size of ringed seals is large enough that such a limit has not been imposed.
The listing could mean an extra step in the federal review process for projects in industries like oil and gas, but when the seals’ critical habitat was designated, NMFS representatives claimed the agency had not identified any likely project modifications that would be required solely to avoid impacts to the habitats of these seals.
The ESA listing of the seals has been championed by national advocacy groups like the Center for Biological Diversity. When the critical habitat was declared this year, Emily Jeffers, an attorney with the group said: “We can’t save them without protecting the places they live. But as Arctic sea ice continues to disappear, we need bolder action. Bearded and ringed seals could go extinct if we don’t dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and phase out Arctic oil and gas drilling.”
Kathy Frost, a retired marine mammal research biologist who used to work with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said she was not surprised that the ESA listing remains controversial. Frost said that the motivations to protect ringed seals might be good, but she was personally not sure if an ESA listing for an animal with a current population of more than one million individuals was the most effective way to go.
“None of these laws and regulations mean anything if they don’t make common sense to the public, to the people who have to pay the bills to fund them,” Frost said. “I believe in conservation very strongly, but it’s pretty hard with a straight face to put something like the ringed seal in the same category as vaquita porpoises in Mexico, of which there are less than 50 in the world.”
She also questioned the wisdom of listing a species like ringed seals as endangered when at the same time in the Kotzebue Sound, there is a beluga sub-population that may be truly endangered. “It is not listed at all, has no ongoing research and has no protected status,” said Frost, who is a longtime member of the Alaska Beluga Whale Committee.
From her point of view, the ringed seal’s status touches on important philosophical questions at the heart of conservation.
“I think we’re going to have to seriously rethink the whole paradigm,” Frost said. “The world is going to change and it’s going to change in ways people don’t like, but you can’t save everything. And we’re going to have to get a whole lot better at prioritizing.”