National Marine Fisheries Service leaves ribbon seals out in the cold

A ribbon seal rests on sea ice in the Bering Sea. Photo: John Jansen/NOAAHow would you feel if all of your neighbors were invited to jump aboard a life boat while you and yours were left to sink or swim?

That is what happened to the ribbon seal (Histriophoca fasciata) recently when the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced that it had rejected listing ribbon seals as a threatened or endangered species despite evidence that its habitat is and will be, greatly impacted by climate change.

However, this past December NMFS added two other ice-dependent seals to the threatened species list; ringed seals (Phoca hispida) and bearded seals (Erignathus barbatus).

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) applauds the December ruling to list both the bearded and ringed seals, but is disappointed with NMFS’ snub of the ribbon seal, especially in light of President Obama’s new Climate Action Plan, which recognizes the imminent threat global warming is to species highly vulnerable to climate change like these Arctic seals.

So why not list ribbon seals?

All three species – ringed, bearded, and ribbon – are sea ice dependent for some period of time during the year. From March through June, ribbon seals use loose pack ice for pupping and molting and as a platform for foraging. They give birth and nurse pups, which cannot swim, exclusively on sea ice. During molting, new hair can only grow when ribbon seals are out of the water where skin can reach higher temperatures.

NMFS acknowledges that the anticipated threats to ribbon seals, primarily due to global warming  (habitat loss/reduction in sea ice cover, and a shift in the abundance of prey), will result in a decline in the ribbon seal population, but one of their main arguments is that it will happen more gradually than in the other two species’ populations.

In other words, NMFS convinced itself that the ribbon seal population wasn't deteriorating fast enough despite the fact that the seals are clearly threatened with, and experiencing, imminent and real harm.

The fisheries service goes on to say that ribbon seals are also more adaptable than bearded and ringed seals due to a more generalized diet and feeding behavior, and they say there is evidence that they will be able to expand their habitat range if sea ice retreats.

However this ability to move into new habitats may actually present the ribbon seal population with new threats to their survival. In the 2007 report, On Thin Ice, IFAW outlined the precarious state of Arctic marine mammals in the United States due to global warming.

The report points out that the ribbon seals’ current habitat range is in regions that are relatively free from predation. If they were to move northward as sea ice diminishes in the south, they will enter polar bear territory, becoming easier targets than other more wary species.

Let us hope that the ribbon seals quickly adapt to this new way of life NMFS has left open to them, if not they will just sink into oblivion.


Click here for more information on IFAW's efforts to protect and save seal populations.

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