Save the Ribbon Seal

Feature story - September 3, 2009
Greenpeace and The Center for Biological Diversity filed suit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for denying necessary protections under the Endangered Species Act for the ribbon seal despite clear scientific evidence that the species is threatened by global warming.

The ribbon seal, an ice-dependent species of the Bering, Chukchi, and Okhotsk seas off Alaska and Russia, is threatened by global warming and the consequent loss of its sea-ice habitat, as well as recent decisions to open its habitat to oil development.

In the waning days of the Bush administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that the ribbon seal did not warrant Endangered Species Act protection because sufficient sea ice would supposedly remain in the seal's habitat for the species to survive at least until mid-century. The agency's conclusions, however, ignored numerous studies by independent scientists and were not supported by its own data, which show that sea-ice extent in the seal's breeding range in the northern Bering Sea will decline significantly during the time of year the seals give birth and rear their young.

In March 2009, the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace sent Dr. Jane Lubchenco, the new head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the Obama administration, a formal notice of intent to sue that described in detail the legal and scientific deficiencies of the agency's ribbon seal decision and asked the agency to revisit the flawed decision. To date the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has not responded to the notice letter.

ribbon seal

Last month, over the objections of conservation groups, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an "incidental harassment authorization" under the Marine Mammal Protection Act to Shell Offshore, allowing the oil company to harass ribbon seals and other marine mammals while exploring for oil in the Chukchi Sea. The Obama administration is also actively defending in court several Bush-era decisions to open up the ribbon seal's habitat for oil development.

Oil and gas development, shipping, and greenhouse gas emissions affecting the Arctic would be subject to greater regulation under the Endangered Species Act if the ribbon seal is listed. Listing of the ribbon seal would not affect subsistence harvest of the species by Alaska natives, which is exempted from the law's prohibitions.