Administration proposes listing Arctic seals as threatened

By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; 8:30 PM

The Obama administration proposed listing six subspecies of ice-dependent seals as threatened under the Endangered Species Act on the grounds that diminishing sea ice in the Arctic threatens their survival.

The move Friday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service suggests that a growing number of species could end up on the endangered species list as global warming accelerates. In listing four subspecies of ringed seals, found in the Arctic Basin and the North Atlantic, NOAA cited shrinking sea ice and reduced snow cover as reasons for its decision. With two Pacific subspecies of bearded seals, including those in Alaska and Russia, the agency identified diminishing sea ice as the primary threat facing the animals.

"It's a clear indication that climate change is happening and it's affecting habitat," said NOAA Fisheries spokeswoman Julie Speegle.

Center for Biological Diversity's Alaska director, Rebecca Noblin, whose group petitioned for the seals' listing, said these species are the first since the polar bear to be proposed for listing solely on the basis of global warming. Federal officials announced in December 2006 that they would seek to list the polar bear as threatened; that decision was finalized in May 2008.

"With this decision, the Obama administration is improving the odds for these two struggling species of ice-dependent seals," Noblin said. "The Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the world, so no animal reliant on Arctic sea ice is safe."

Two of the subspecies proposed for listing reside in U.S. waters - the Arctic ringed seal and Beringia bearded seal. NOAA has a year to finalize its decision, which is subject to public comment.

One of the five recognized subspecies of ringed seals, the Saimaa in Finland, is already listed as endangered.

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