State Disappointed by Critical Seal Habitat Proposal

Juneau — The State of Alaska strongly disagrees with the critical habitat designation for ringed and bearded seals proposed today by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). If adopted, the combined designations would encompass hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean habitat. The Arctic subspecies of ringed seal and the Beringia population of bearded seal were both listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 2012.

“It is difficult to believe that these seal species, which have healthy, robust populations, can be considered threatened with extinction and be the basis for such a massive federal action,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang. “It’s very disappointing. This degree of federal overreach is outrageous.”

Bearded and ringed seals each number in the hundreds of thousands in Alaska’s waters. Both species continue to occupy the entirety of their vast ranges. The extent of the proposed critical habitat for each of the two seal species is about the size of Texas and covers the Alaska coastline and all U.S. waters of the northern Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas. Although development activities are not prohibited within critical habitat, the designation adds a layer of regulatory review that increases costs and can result in project delays. Designation of such a huge area will have significant consequences for the economy of the State with little to no conservation benefit to the seals.

Combined with the proposal for ringed and bearded seals, other pending and existing critical habitat designations would encircle nearly the entire Alaska coastline-the largest combined designation for any state. In comments on proposed critical habitat for humpback whales, the State argued not only that the approach taken by NMFS is inconsistent with the legal requirements of the ESA, but that these enormous designations do not truly protect the most valuable habitat. For each of these species, NMFS has proposed designation of hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean that do not contain particularly valuable habitat for listed species, well beyond the habitat that is essential or “critical.” The State of Alaska maintains that including large areas that are not especially valuable only serves to diminish the value of a designation of truly critical areas.