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Closing In
Along with global warming, new oil leases in the Chukchi Sea threaten to displace yet another Arctic mammal, the ribbon seal.

A ribbon seal on sea ice in Russian Ozernoy Gulf.
Michael Cameron, NOAA/Marine Mammal Laboratory

If misery loves company, polar bears have an unfortunate friend in the ribbon seal. Responding to a December 20 petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has agreed to consider the ribbon seal and three other seal species for listing under the Endangered Species Act. This could be bad news for oil companies that just purchased oil and gas leases in the Chukchi Sea, an area between northwest Alaska and Siberia where ribbon seals, named for their unique fur pattern, make their home on the ice.

Like polar bears, ribbon seals are already facing habitat loss and possible extinction as a result of global climate change. Oil and gas exploration would pose another threat to their already precarious existence. “The entire Arctic ecosystem is in a state of crisis because of the loss of sea ice, and the ribbon seal needs that ice in order to survive,” says Shaye Wolf, a CBD biologist. 

The Chukchi Sea is a relatively unexplored, yet potentially valuable area for oil and gas resources, according to John Goll, the Alaska regional director for the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the part of the U.S. Interior Department that oversees offshore leases. On February 6 the MMS auctioned off 488 leases to several oil and gas companies, including Shell and ConocoPhillips, and is in the process of evaluating bids for each lease. “We have only had five wells drilled in the [Chukchi] area,” Goll says. “It looks like a good area, but until it is explored, we don’t know what the bottom line might be.”

The region where many of the Chukchi leases were sold is also some of the only habitat for the ribbon seals that use the outer sea ice to bear and raise their pups and molt their fur coats, according to Wolf. Due to climate change, sea ice now forms later in the fall and melts early in the spring and summer, often leaving seals little time on their ice habitat. Moving further inland makes them vulnerable to predators, and industrial oil and gas exploration could damage that crucial habitat. “The disturbances from industrial noise pollution and surveys cause marine mammals to leave the area,” says Wolf, adding “There is [also] the threat of an oil spill.”

The MMS’s environmental-impact statement for the Chukchi lease sale states that there is a 40 percent chance that an oil spill of more than 1,000 barrels of oil will occur. If the spill is on ice, only 10 percent to 20 percent of the oil can be recovered, although Goll says there is very little chance this oil will reach open water.

NOAA’s status review includes the ribbon seal—whose world population is estimated to be 200,000 individuals—as well as the ringed, bearded and spotted seal species. In December it will present its findings to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider an endangered listing for all four species. In the meantime, seismic surveys to locate possible oil and gas reserves in the Chukchi area may happen as soon as this summer, according to Goll. In the event that the seal species are listed, Goll says the Alaska MMS will comply with whatever restrictions are set and work to enforce those restrictions while still exploring the Chukchi for natural resources. But Wolf maintains that any industrial activity in ribbon seal country could doom the marine mammals altogether. “Drilling in critical habitat will create oils spills and noise pollution, and this simply isn’t compatible with recovering the seal,” she says. “These species are in need of intensive care now, and these sales threaten to further cut off their life line.”—Shawn Query

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