National Oceanic Atmospheric Association Fisheries has designated critical habitat in U.S. waters off Alaska’s coastline for the Arctic ringed seals and the Beringia distinct population segment of bearded seals, both of which are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. (ESA).
The Act requires NOAA Fisheries to designate critical habitats for listed species in areas within the jurisdiction of the United States. Critical habitat identifies geographic areas containing features essential to the conservation of such listed species.
For these species, critical habitat includes marine waters of the Northern Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas. Necessary 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 the 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 the federal agencies must ensure that their actions are not likely to destroy or adversely modify critical habitat. NOAA Fisheries said this applies to any activity involving federal funding permitting or authorization that may affect listed species or designated critical habitat.
The designated critical habitat does overlap with some areas where offshore oil and gas activities occur. ESA section 7 consultations have already appeared for numerous oil and gas projects within the scope of the critical habitat designations, specifically regarding effects on bearded and ringed seals and endangered bowhead whales.
This critical habitat also overlaps the waters of two federal fisheries management areas: the Arctic management area and the northern portion of the Bering Sea and the Aleutian Islands management area. Commercial fishing is not currently permitted within the Arctic management area due to insufficient data to support the sustainable management of the commercial fishery there. Portions of the critical habitat also overlap with certain state commercial fisheries management areas.
Officials have said that designating critical habitat does not create a preserve or refuge and would not impact the subsistence harvest of ringed or bearded seals by Alaska Natives.