NOAA rejects petition to remove ringed seals from ESA listing

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week denied a petition from the State of Alaska’s Dept. of Fish and Game and other entities that requested Arctic ringed seals be removed from the Endangered Species Act listing. According to NOAA’s petition finding released last Wednesday, petitioners did not present substantial new analysis or evidence necessary to warrant a reconsideration of their initial decision.
Ringed seals in Alaska are currently considered a threatened species.
According to NOAA Spokesperson Julie Fair, the agency thoroughly reviewed the petition and found that it largely reiterates arguments the agency had already received and addressed in their initial decision to put seals on the list. NOAA’s conclusion, therefore, remains the same. “The petition does not present substantial new information or new analysis indicating that the scientific and commercial data considered in our listing determination, or the analytic methodology used in the determination, were in error,” reads the petition finding.
Moreover, according to the finding, the petition includes information that is “incomplete, inaccurate, or not supported by appropriate documentation,” and thus does not qualify as substantial new information. Examples include the petition’s implication that ringed seals sometimes give birth or nurse on land —which NOAA said there is no evidence of —and an inconsistency of the depth of snow needed to protect seal pups from predation.
Fair explained that the classification of “threatened” applies to species that are likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. Ringed seals, she said, were listed as threatened mostly because of threats associated with long-term reductions in sea ice and on-ice snow depths. NOAA added ringed seals to the Endangered Species Act list in 2012.
“The ESA contains an exemption that allows for subsistence use of listed species by Alaska Natives. Subsistence use of ringed seals is not affected by the ESA listing,” said Fair.
The petition to delist ringed seals was put forward by the State of Alaska, the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation, the Iñupiaq Community of the Arctic Slope and the North Slope Borough. Using both new information and reanalysis of already considered information, the petition argues that NOAA’s decision to classify ringed seals as endangered was wrong.
According to Doug Vincent-Lang with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the State disagrees with NOAA’s decision. Vincent-Lang said that the petition does present substantial additional information that suggests seals should be removed from the Endangered Species Act list. He explained that the State is not categorically opposed to listing species as endangered. However, he said that their position is that the classification should be reserved for species that really need it. “We should do everything in our power to protect species at risk of extinction, but we should not water down the label for species not at risk.”
He lists the petition’s central arguments: that ringed seals remain numerous —he said there are about 37 million in the circumpolar north— and that the seals are adapting to climate changes better than expected. Data collected over the past six years reveal that the seals are more resilient in the face of environmental changes such as loss of sea ice than predicted. “Ongoing research, along with traditional knowledge compiled since the listing shows no evidence of declines in ringed seal populations,” Vincent-Lang said.
Maintaining ringed seals’ threatened status, Vincent-Lang said, will have “significant consequences for the economy of the State and subsistence opportunities for Alaska Natives with little to no conservation benefit to ringed seals.” The categorization means that the State will spend money on management tools that Vincent-Lang believes are not necessary to conserve the species. For instance, the listing “triggers” other actions, such as the designation of critical habitat. The designation of a critical habitat in turn impacts which activities can take place in the area. Moreover, ringed seals are already managed under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and so additional oversight is not necessary, he said. Another concern Vincent-Lang had is that if ringed seals can be considered threatened even with a high population and with no direct threat, the door opens for other species to be similarly classified. “It is difficult to believe that a species with a healthy, robust population that numbers in the millions can be considered threatened with extinction,” said Vincent-Lang.
Vincent-Lang said that the Department is struggling to understand how NOAA, using the same data, reached a different conclusion. He added that the State is currently evaluating NOAA’s response to their petition and considering different options moving forward.  
However, NOAA’s petition finding explained that the listing as threatened was not based on a decline in population size or health or the fact that a “climate driven decline” would be noticeable in the near future. Instead, “It was based primarily on the conclusion that continuing Arctic warming would cause substantial reductions in sea ice and on-ice snow depths...and that these habitat changes were expected to lead to decreased survival of pups and a substantial decline in the number of Arctic ringed seals,” the finding says. Therefore, the lack of short-term population decrease is not sufficient reason to change the classification.
In February, NOAA began a five-year review on the status of the Arctic ringed seal, the purpose of which is to ensure that the listing classifications under the Endangered Species Act are accurate. Fair said the review is completely separate from the petition.


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