Good news among the bad news! Last December, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) listed as threatened six different populations of ice seals from the Arctic. The lucky ones are two populations of bearded seal (one in Bering, Alaska, and the other in Okhostk, Russia), and four subspecies of ringed seals, (from the Arctic, Baltic, Okhostk and the endemic subspecies from Lake Ladonga, in Russia).
Why are they protected? Here is the bad news. They are being protected because scientists predict sea ice will decrease significantly by the end of the century (polar bears were protected in 2008 for the same reason). The reason for the sea ice decrease is that the rate of snowfall will decrease over the next 80 years, and since snow is more reflective than ice, it has a cooling effect and protects the ice. The ice needs the snow to protect it from melting and causes it to last to the spring. Temperatures are increasing in the Arctic, which is causing ice to melt at a phenomenal rate. The high temperatures is also cuasing ice in the Arctic to form later in the fall than 30 years ago.
The seals need this sea ice because they use it as a place to rest and breathe (seals do not breathe under water). The seals live in the sea ice; they breed there; and, they dig their refuges on it. For example, the ringed seals dig snow caves for their pups, in order to protect them from the freezing cold and predators. They could move north, because the ice is losing extention from south to north, but the ice is not appropiate for them. The seals need at least 20 cm (8 inches) of snow, and it should be more or less soft for digging it. But the northern ice is harder, so the seals can’t dig in it.
Now their populations are considered healthy, but their future is anything but good. The next step is to evaluate possible habitats for this species, and protect them. And that’s the problem. Although NOAA said that this won’t result in any immediate restrictions of human activities, people from the gas and oil companies criticized this decision because it is based in a prediction, and not an actual problem.
We already told you the oil war that is taking place in Alaska. Imagine now the troubles that this project will create for the oil companies, with more and more protected habitats everyday. NOAA replied that any project for a protected habitat will have an analysis about its economic impact, so the costs will be at their minimum. The only thing this protection imposes is that Federal permits or fund projects that may affect a listed species must consult with NOAA Fisheries to ensure the existence of the species is not at risk.
Do you think NOAA (government) is taking the right approach by being cautious and protecting a species based on predictions rather than waiting for the species population to dwindle?