Environmental Protection

CBD, Greenpeace Sue NOAA to Protect Ribbon Seal

The Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace earlier this month filed suit against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for denying protection under the Endangered Species Act for the ribbon seal.

The ribbon seal, an ice-dependent species of the Bering, Chukchi, and Okhotsk seas off Alaska and Russia, is threatened by the loss of its habitat.

"The science is clear that global warming is threatening the ribbon seal with extinction," said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cannot take a head-in-the-sand approach to global warming while Arctic species like the ribbon seal slide toward extinction."

In the waning days of the Bush administration, NOAA 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 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.

"The Bering Sea is changing more rapidly due to global warming than just about any place on the planet," said George Pletnikoff, a senior oceans campaigner with Greenpeace who grew up on St. George Island in the Bering Sea. "This is Ground Zero. Federal agencies need to act as if there is life outside 'the Beltway' and acknowledge the science or there won't be a future for the ribbon seal or any of us."

In March 2009, the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace sent Jane Lubchenco, the new head of NOAA 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. As of Sept. 3, NOAA has not responded to the notice letter.

Last month, over the objections of conservation groups, NOAA 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.

"There may be a new captain at the helm, but the federal government is still steering wildlife management in the Arctic on a course for extinction," added Wolf.

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.

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