A milestone measure to protect an area off the coast of Alaska as critical habitat for ringed seals was proposed this week. The protections, drafted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), would apply to 226 million acres - an area twice the size of California - in Alaska's Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas.
The move would protect an ecosystem that's severely threatened by climate change. Ringed seals, for one, depend on the ice - they live under it for protection and create snow caves on top of it to nurse their young. The species is already listed as threatened by the Endangered Species Act. But the protections would also help many other species that live there, like polar bears, the main predator of ringed seals.
"This isn't just a victory for ringed seals. The melting sea ice that is so crucial to ringed seals supports a wide variety of wildlife, including polar bears and walruses," said Shaye Wolf, climate science director for the Center for Biological Diversity.
The protections would require companies seeking the area's rich oil and gas reserves to consult with NOAA Fisheries on any exploration projects. It would also affect commercial fishing, a lucrative activity in the area.
The Arctic is expected to lose 40 percent of its ice by the middle of this century, and the sea ice level was the sixth-lowest ever recorded this past summer. Conservationists say that while habitat protection is necessary, climate change is still a pressing problem.
"Now the Obama administration needs to make these protections count, by reducing the greenhouse gas pollution that's rapidly making the Arctic uninhabitable for ringed seals and other ice-dependent animals," said Wolf.
NOAA will be accepting public comments on the habitat designation for the ringed seals for 90 days.