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Environmental group plans lawsuit over two species of Arctic Alaska ice seals

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Environmental group plans lawsuit over two species of Arctic Alaska ice seals

Oct 04, 2023 | 10:07 pm ET
By Yereth Rosen
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Environmental group plans lawsuit over two species of Arctic Alaska ice seals
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A ringed seal pup peeks out from its protective snow cave near Kotzebue on May 1, 2011. An environmental group is planning to sue the federal government over its failure to produce recovery plans for ringed seals and bearded seals, both dependent on Arctic sea ice and both listed as threatened species. (Photo by Michael Cameron/NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center)

A national environmental group said Wednesday that it plans to sue the federal government over what it said is an illegal delay in producing recovery plans for ringed seals and bearded seals, both listed as threatened.

The Center for Biological Diversity detailed its plan in a notice of intent to sue the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service. The document was sent in accordance with the Endangered Species Act’s requirement of at least 60 days of notice before lawsuits are filed.

The center said the National Marine Fisheries Service has broken the law by failing to create recovery plans for the ice- and snow-dependent Arctic seals. Additionally, the center said, the agency has failed to review the status of the two species every five years, as required by the Endangered Species Act.

“It makes me sick that we’ve known these seals are in danger for more than a decade, but the agency hasn’t made a plan to deal with it,” David Derrick, a Center for Biological Diversity attorney, said in a statement. “Helping a species recover to a healthy population requires some kind of roadmap. Not drafting a recovery plan is akin to just telling these seals ‘good luck out there!’ It’s outrageous and it’s illegal.

A NOAA spokesperson in Alaska, Julie Fair, said the agency would not comment on the planned lawsuit, as it does not comment on ongoing litigation.

A bearded seal rests on ice in Kotzebue Sound in 2011. (Photo by John Jansen/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
A bearded seal rests on ice in Kotzebue Sound in 2011. Bearded seals are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. (Photo by John Jansen/National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Ringed seals and ice seals depend on Arctic sea ice for critical life stages, and ringed seals also depend on snow piled on that floating ice because they dig lairs in that snow to protect their pups from the cold and from predators. Climate change, which has diminished both sea ice and the snow atop it during the spring pupping season, was cited as the top threat when the two species were listed as threatened in 2012.

The Center for Biological Diversity’s new notice of intent to sue lists some possible elements that could make up recovery plans for both seal species. Suggested recovery plan provisions included better public education by NOAA on Arctic climate change and how to mitigate it; more preparations for Arctic oil spills, such as staging of cleanup equipment; more controls on shipping and commercial fishing bycatch, which is the incidental harvest of nontargeted species, some of which are important food sources for the ice seals; and more cooperation between U.S. agencies and their counterparts in countries like Norway that also have ringed and spotted seals.

The center was instrumental in the granting of Endangered Species Act protections to ringed and bearded seals. The center submitted petitions in 2007 and 2008 for the listing of ice-dependent Arctic seals, which were followed by lawsuits that ultimately won listings in 2012 and designation of critical habitat last year.

Designation of critical habitat, geographic areas where special protections for listed species apply, is a requirement of the Endangered Species Act.

Several entities, including the state of Alaska, the North Slope Borough and oil industry groups, have challenged both the listing and the designation of critical habitat for ringed and bearded seals. Those legal fights went through multiple stages in federal courts. In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take on the issue, leaving intact listings that had been affirmed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Attempts to reverse the listings continue. In November, the state and the North Slope Borough sued the National Marine Fisheries Service to try to compel delisting of the populations. In February, the state sued the agency over its designation of vast areas of the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas as critical habitat for the two species of ice seals. Both cases are pending in U.S. District Court in Anchorage.