NOAA Fisheries has designated critical habitat in U.S. waters off Alaska’s coastline for Arctic ringed seals and the Beringia distinct population segment of bearded seals, both of which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The act requires that NOAA Fisheries designate critical habitat for listed species in areas within U.S. jurisdiction. Critical habitat identifies geographic areas that contain features essential to conservation of such listed species.
For these species, critical habitat includes marine waters of the Northern Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The habitat boundaries differ between the two species, reflecting differences in where the essential habitat features for each species are found. The final rule to designate critical habitat for Arctic ringed seals excludes an area of the Beaufort Sea used by the Navy for training and testing activities, based on national security impacts.
Under the act, the only regulatory effect of critical habitat designation is the requirement under Section 7 that federal agencies ensure that their actions are not likely to destroy or adversely modify critical habitat. NOAA Fisheries has said this applies to any activity involving federal funding, permitting or authorization that may affect listed species or designated critical habitat.
The designated critical area though does overlap with some areas where offshore oil and gas activities occur. Section 7 consultations already have occurred for numerous oil and gas projects within the area of the critical habitat designations, specifically regarding effects on bearded and ringed seals, as well as endangered bowhead whales.
This critical habitat also overlaps waters of two federal fisheries management areas: the Arctic area and the northern portion of the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands area. Commercial fishing is not currently permitted within the Arctic management area due to insufficient data to support the sustainable management of commercial fishing there. Portions of the critical habitat also overlap with certain state commercial fisheries management areas.
Designation of critical habitat does not create a preserve or refuge, officials have said, and would not impact subsistence harvest of ringed or bearded seals by Alaska Natives.