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Ribbon Seal of the Bering Sea Losing Icy Habitat

SAN FRANCISCO, California, December 26, 2007 (ENS) – The rare ribbon seal may be one of the first species to lose its habitat to global warming, says the Center for Biological Diversity. The ribbon seal is dependent on Arctic sea ice for survival – but that sea ice is shrinking fast.

The group has filed a scientific petition with the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect the ribbon seal under the federal Endangered Species Act due to decline of its habitat in a warming climate.

“The Arctic is in crisis state from global warming,” said Shaye Wolf, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the petition.

“An entire ecosystem is rapidly melting away and the ribbon seal is poised to become the first victim of our failure to address global warming,” he said.


A ribbon seal in the Alaskan
Arctic (Photo courtesy NOAA)

The ribbon seal is the most decoratively patterned of all seals. While the pups are pure white, the adults have black fur wrapped in white circles.

“Why does the ribbon seal have its stripes? Probably to make it less visible to underwater predators,” explains ribbon seal biologist Carleton Ray from the University of Virginia.

“But this beautiful, charismatic species may soon become totally invisible should its spring reproductive habitat of sea ice continue to diminish, as climate models predict,” he said.

During the late winter through early summer, ribbon seals rely on the edge of the sea ice in the Bering and Okhotsk Seas off Alaska and Russia as safe habitat for giving birth and as a nursery for their pups.

But Wolf says that this winter the sea-ice habitat is rapidly disappearing. “If current ice-loss trends due to global warming continue, the ribbon seal faces likely extinction by the end of the century,” he says.

The ribbon seal’s winter sea ice habitat is projected to decline 40 percent by mid-century under recent greenhouse gas emissions trends, Wolf says.

He says any remaining sea ice will be much thinner and unlikely to last long enough for the ribbon seals to finish rearing their pups, leading to widespread pup mortality.

In addition to loss of its sea-ice habitat from global warming, the ribbon seal faces threats from increased oil and gas development in its habitat and the proliferation of shipping routes in the increasingly ice-free Arctic.


Ribbon seal on ice in Russian
territory (Photo by G. Carleton
Ray courtesy U. Virginia)

Ribbon seals are still managing to find thick enough ice to support their activities. G. Carleton Ray of the University of Virginia Department of Environmental Sciences travelled to the Bering Sea in May 2007 and encountered them.

“In Russian waters is pack ice with leads, where strong, cold winds from Siberia create thick ice with parallel leads and where, last year, we found little-known, strikingly beautiful ribbon seals,” wrote Ray.

In Wolf’s view there is still reason to hope for their survival.

“With rapid action to reduce carbon dioxide, methane and black carbon emissions, combined with a moratorium on new oil and gas development and shipping routes in the Arctic, we can still save the ribbon seal, the polar bear, and the Arctic ecosystem,” he said. “But the window of opportunity to act is closing rapidly.”

He points out that warming in the Arctic now is occurring at a pace so rapid that is exceeding the predictions of the most advanced climate models.

“Summer sea-ice extent in 2007 plummeted to a record minimum which most climate models forecast would not be reached until 2050,” Wolf observed. “Winter sea ice declined to a minimum in 2007 that most climate models forecast would not be reached until 2070.”

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