Fresh off a successful campaign to list polar bears as a threatened species, a conservation group is asking for similar protection for the bears' main prey.
The Center for Biological Diversity on Wednesday petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to list ringed seals and two other species — spotted and bearded seals — as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.
All three seal species live in the seas off Alaska's coast and depend on sea ice that is receding rapidly, according to the petition.
"Ice is essential for them to give birth and rear their pups," said Shaye Wolf, a biologist and the lead author of the petition. "They won't be able to reproduce without ice."
The seals also rely on ice for molting.
"They have to replenish their fur every year," Wolf said. "They rely on the safety of the sea ice to molt their fur."
Sheela McLean, a fisheries service spokeswoman in Alaska, said the agency had not received the petition Wednesday afternoon but is already reviewing seals. The conservation group petitioned the agency in December to list ribbon seals, and McLean said biologists were preparing status reviews for all four species. Each use sea ice in different ways, she said.
The fisheries service is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Polar bears are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, part of the Interior Department.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne two weeks ago announced polar bears would be listed as threatened because of sea ice loss. The Center for Biological Diversity announced Tuesday it would sue to force the Interior Department to respond to its petition to list walrus as a threatened species because of threats from global warming and offshore petroleum development.
Wolf said warming is occurring at a pace exceeding predictions of the most advanced climate models. Winter sea ice declined in 2006 and 2007 to a minimum that most climate models forecast would not be reached until 2070, she said, and summer sea ice in 2007 shrank to record minimums.