On December 28, 2012, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a final rule (pdf) listing three subspecies of the ringed seal as threatened and one subspecies as endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The same day, NMFS listed (pdf) two distinct population segments of the bearded seal as threatened under the ESA. Based on the best scientific and commercial data available, NMFS “concluded that a significant decrease in snow ice is probable later this century, and that these changes will likely cause these seal populations to decline.” A species is considered threatened if it is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout a significant portion of its range. Based on this definition, NMFS believes that "threats stemming from well-established observed trends in a global physical process" such as climate change are sufficiently foreseeable to warrant listing.
According to the Seattle Times, Alaska Governor Sean Parnell called the science behind the listing decision speculative, and said the state will consider legal action. (Joling, Dec. 31, 2012). Noting that the ringed seal population is in the millions and the bearded seal population is in the thousands, Gov. Parnell stated that the “ESA was not enacted to protect healthy animal populations.”
Ringed seals thrive in completely ice-covered Arctic waters, and give birth to their cubs in snow caves. Bearded seals, named for their thick whiskers, give birth on drifting pack ice. According to NMFS, warming temperatures will cause a decline in both species’ breeding and rearing habitats.
Existing laws currently authorize subsistence hunting of seals by Alaska Natives. The listing determination has no effect on these laws.