Ribbon Seal Is On Its Own
In the summer I explained that the Bush Administration had broken the law by refusing to provide a decision about the status of the ribbon seal under the Endangered Species Act in the required amount of time.
Now, nine months late, that decision has finally been provided: There will be no protection for the ribbon seal under the Endangered Species Act.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced its conclusion that, even with the reduction of Arctic ice that comes with global warming, it is likely that ice will still form in wintertime in the Bering Sea and parts of the Arctic Ocean. Ribbon seals depend upon sea ice for reproduction. They birth their pups there. No sea ice, no pups. No pups, no more ribbon seals.
Given the present situation, it’s reasonable to conclude that the ribbon seals, which currently number at 200,000, could survive even if the Arctic Ocean becomes ice-free in summertime. The question is the time of year at which the Arctic Ocean and Bering Sea would completely melt. If that melt came too soon, and the ribbon seal pups were not ready for a life of constant swimming, enough pups might die each year to lead to the extinction of the species even though winter ice would still form.
I can see how NOAA scientists can conclude that there isn’t enough direct evidence yet to conclude that the ribbon seals will face such a situation. The trouble is that the primary cause of the climate change that is shrinking the polar sea ice – greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, produces effects long after its initiation. Once the threat to ribbon seals became certain, it could well be to late to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough to save the species. In fact, it already might be too late.
Still, NOAA must deal with facts, not fears. That’s why, though I’m nervous about the future of ribbon seals, I think that the government’s decision is the proper one. This ruling should have come nine months earlier, when its implications might have become part of the presidential campaign.
Environmentalists need to consider the meaning of this ruling, which suggests that future conditions will often not provide a solid foundation for present-day action through the Endangered Species Act. Alternative routes to protection need to be planned.