ANCHORAGE, Alaska The National Marine Fisheries Service confirmed Thursday it will conduct a full status review of three Arctic seals that depend on sea ice for survival.
The agency said it found merit in an environmental group's petition to list ringed, bearded and spotted seals as candidates for threatened species protections.
"Ice seals use the various habitats of ice in different ways," said NMFS spokeswoman Sheela McLean in Juneau. "We decided we should review each one separately."
Shaye Wolf of the Center for Biological Diversity, the lead author of the listing petition, said it was filed for the same reason her group sought a polar bear listing: the dramatic loss of Arctic Ocean sea ice used by marine mammals.
"These seals are completely dependent on sea ice for giving birth and rearing their pups," Wolf said. "As the sea ice melts away beneath them, seal pups get separated from their moms and are forced to enter the icy water before they're big enough and strong enough to survive."
NMFS is a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which manages most marine mammals, including seals and whales.
The Interior Department oversees walrus and polar bears and in May placed polar bears on the list of threatened species because of the dramatic loss of bear habitat, sea ice.
Arctic sea ice last summer shrunk to about 1.65 million square miles, nearly 40 percent less than the long-term average between 1979 and 2000.
Scientists at the National Snow and Ice Data Center said last week that Arctic Ocean sea ice this year has melted to the second-lowest minimum since satellite observations began and could set a new record low before freezing resumes at the end of this month.
Most climate modelers have predicted a continued downward spiral in summer sea ice.
"The science of global warming and the threats that it poses to seals and polar bears is absolutely clear," Wolf said. "The Arctic is experiencing this unprecedented sea ice loss and these species are struggling to keep up."
She said the nation is at risk of losing both polar bears and ice seals if immediate action is not taken to address global warming.
All three seals live in the Bering, Chukchi or Beaufort seas off Alaska's western and northern coasts.
Ringed seals are the main prey of polar bears. They're the most numerous of the seals that live off Alaska's coasts and the only seals that can survive in completely ice-covered waters.
They do so by digging out breathing holes in the ice with an adaptation on their front flippers unusually stout claws that allow them to excavate ice.
Holes dug by ringed seals eventually get covered by drifting snow. Within the drift, females dig out lairs to give birth and nurse pups. Pups stay on ice as their mothers dive below the ice to feed on fish and crustaceans.
With warming, ice and snow on top of sea ice can disintegrate during critical rearing times, making pups vulnerable to predation by polar bears and Arctic foxes.
Pups also are susceptible to temperature stresses until they grow a blubber layer and shed their lanugo, the white, wooly coat they're born with.
Bearded seals are the largest true seals off Alaska's coast and can reach weights of more than 750 pounds, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. They are sought by subsistence hunters in Alaska for hides and meat. Bearded seals reproduce and rest on drifting pack ice.
Spotted seals are strongly associated with sea ice from autumn to late spring and bear young on drifting pack ice, according to state biologists.