Juneau, AK — Alaska strongly disagrees with the designations of critical habitat for ringed and bearded seals finalized today by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The two designations are unjustifiably immense, encompassing hundreds of thousands of square miles of ocean habitat. The State maintains that these areas are overly large by Endangered Species Act (ESA) standards and provide little to no benefit for the species they are intended to conserve. The designations also do not address any of the substantive comments provided by the state during the open comment period.
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. NMFS based the listings on the prophesied loss of large areas of the seals’ sea ice habitat by the year 2100, despite estimates for both species of populations in the hundreds of thousands of individuals in Alaska’s waters and no estimated impact in the near future. Both ringed and bearded seals continue to occupy the entirety of their vast ranges across the Arctic. Data collected by State of Alaska biologists during the past decade demonstrate that both seal species are generally healthy, with robust reproductive rates, and include no indication of population declines now or in the near future.
“Listing these robust and healthy seal populations was unjustified,” said Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang. “It’s disappointing to think that NMFS interprets the ESA to mean that these abundant populations are currently threatened with extinction when the potential threats to habitat may be decades in the future. We have recommended that the populations continue to be monitored for possible declines, leaving open the option of listing in the future, if justified.”
“Beyond the faulty listing, the designation of ‘critical habitat’ for species that are not currently in danger of extinction is unnecessary and unjustified. Overly large critical habitat provides little to no conservation benefit yet adds another layer to the already complex federal bureaucracy in the waters off Alaska,” Vincent-Lang continued. “The State has maintained that until NMFS can identify specific areas that are clearly critical and beneficial to the species, the appropriate action was to determine that designation of critical habitat is not prudent.
Commissioner Vincent-Lang added “It’s also difficult not to conclude that Alaska is being singled out for vast areas of critical habitat, since 5 of the 6 largest designations in the U.S. are off the coast of Alaska. He added, “The process used to designate critical habitat in Alaska is biased and unfair. Alaska should not be treated differently.”
Each designation consists of several hundred thousand square miles of marginal ocean habitat extending well beyond the habitat that is biologically essential or “critical” to the seals. For each of the two species, the critical habitat is about the size of Texas. Together, the designations cover the Alaska coastline and all U.S. waters of the northern Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas. This compares to the designation of critical habitat of North Atlantic right whales, which is limited and designed around discrete areas.
NMFS has said that these designations do not impose any restrictions on human activities in or affecting the critical habitat. Although development activities are not prohibited within critical habitat, the designation adds a layer of regulatory review that constrains industry by increasing costs, time, and uncertainty for projects even though the majority will have no meaningful impacts on the listed species. And it opens a door to legal challenges that impact all resource development activities that may occur with the designated area. One only needs to point to Alaska’s north slope as proof.
The state is reviewing this action and considering its options, including legally challenging the final action.