NOAA Fisheries is designating critical habitat in U.S. waters off the coast of Alaska for Arctic ringed seals and the Beringia distinct population segment (DPS) of bearded seals. Both species are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The ESA requires that NOAA Fisheries designate critical habitat for listed species in areas within the jurisdiction of the United States.
Critical habitat identifies geographic areas that contain features essential to the conservation of a listed species.
For each species, the critical habitat area includes marine waters of the northern Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas. The critical habitat boundaries differ between the two species, reflecting differences in where the essential habitat features for each species are found. For each of the designations, the geographic extent of the critical habitat is discussed in detail in the final rule and is depicted on a map.
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.
NOAA Fisheries considered public comments on the proposed designation, and used the best scientific data available, including independent peer review. Before designating critical habitat, we gave careful consideration to potential economic, national security, and other relevant factors.
Effects of the Critical Habitat Designations
Under the ESA, 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. This applies to any activity involving Federal funding, permitting, or authorization that may affect listed species or designated critical habitat.
The critical habitat overlap with some areas where offshore oil and gas activities occur. ESA section 7 consultations have already 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.
In addition, the critical habitat overlaps with waters of two Federal fisheries management areas: Arctic Management Area and the northern portion of the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands Management Area. Currently, no commercial fishing is permitted within the Arctic Management Area due to insufficient data to support the sustainable management of a commercial fishery there. Portions of the critical habitat also overlap with certain state commercial fisheries management areas.
NOAA Fisheries has completed a section 7 consultation to assess the effects of the groundfish fisheries on ringed and bearded seals. Ringed and bearded seals have occasionally been taken incidentally in these fisheries, but the levels of interactions are very low.
Designating critical habitat does not create a preserve or refuge, and would not affect subsistence harvest of ringed or bearded seals by Alaska Natives.
History of This Management Action
NOAA Fisheries listed Arctic ringed seals and Beringia DPS bearded seals as threatened under the ESA in December 2012. We deferred proposing a critical habitat designation for Beringia DPS bearded seals when the listing for that species was challenged in court. We proposed critical habitat for ringed seals in December 2014, but completion of the designation was likewise put on hold after the listing of the species was challenged in court. The listings were reinstated in 2017 and 2018.
A 2019 lawsuit challenged NOAA Fisheries for not completing timely designation of critical habitat for ringed and bearded seals. This led to a settlement agreement under which the agency committed to complete final determinations of critical habitat by April 29, 2022.
A revised proposed rule to designate critical habitat for Arctic ringed seals and a proposed rule to designate critical habitat for the Beringia DPS of bearded seals were published in the Federal Register on January 8, 2021. NOAA Fisheries held three public hearings on the proposals during a 90-day comment period.
The final rules to designate critical habitat for Arctic ringed seals and Beringia DPS bearded seals go into effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.