Arctic ringed seals (Phoca hispida hispida) could soon get a critical habitat more than twice the size of California within the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Under rules (pdf) proposed this week by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the seals could have more than 900,000 square kilometers of protected waters. The seals were declared threatened with extinction under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) two years ago, mainly because of the decline in sea ice on which they shelter when molting or raising their pups.

Critical habitat does not actually mean that authorities will set aside land for conservation, and it has little effect on private activities. Rather, a critical habitat designation requires federal agencies to consult in this case with the Fisheries Service before conducting, funding or licensing any actions within the region that could have an impact on the seals.

This designation actually doesn't change what is already required of organizations operating in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas. Under ESA rules, federal agencies need to go through the consultation process to see if activities in the region would impact individual seals. Still, it adds an extra level of protection for areas where seals are not currently present but where their populations could expand as a necessary aspect of their recovery.

"This isn't just a victory for ringed seals," said Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which kicked this whole process off in 2008 by filing a petition to protect four ringed seal subspecies. "The melting sea ice that is so crucial to ringed seals supports a wide variety of wildlife, including polar bears and walruses." The seals, it should be noted, are one of the primary foods of polar bears (Ursus maritimus). Wolf also called for the federal government to take more action to protect the seals from the effects of global warming.

The critical habitat proposal acknowledges that sea-ice loss due to climate change is the main reason why these seals are currently threatened but makes no specific recommendations.

The proposal will soon be published in the Federal Register, after which a 90-day public comment period will open. Comments may be submitted here.

Photo: An Arctic ringed seal photographed at the Detroit Zoo by Loren Sztajer. Used under Creative Commons license

Previously in Extinction Countdown: