There is a new critical habitat designation for Nayiit and Makliit. Will this maintain their numbers?

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Alaska’s sea ice is melting, harming ringed and bearded seal populations along the west coast. In an attempt to help these seal populations, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released new restrictions on commercial activity in the Bering Sea. Proponents of the new restrictions say NOAA is doing what it can to protect these animals. Those who oppose it believe that it is unnecessary federal excess that will prevent commercial industries from operating effectively.

Albert Simon of Hooper Bay remembers when he started hunting seals.

“I went there with my grandfather and my father. I started sealing when I was about four or five years old,” Simon said.

Now, at 51, he has been a regular sealer for his extended family for decades. He said he never overfishes and gets just what his family needs for food, seal oil and clothing. But over the years, it took him longer and longer to reach that quota.

This piece was originally published by KNBA. Republished by Native News Online with permission.

“You know, sometimes, like on a good week, depending on the weather, we catch four to five. And 20 years ago you could easily catch more than 20 in a week,” Simon said.

Simon speaks here of nayiit or ringed seal. The nayiit, along with the makliit, or bearded seals, are considered an endangered species by NOAA, which has issued a new ruling in an attempt to protect them. Last week, it designated much of coastal Alaska as critical habitat for these species.

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The area is roughly the size of Texas.

The critical habitat designation extends from the North Slope Borough to the Yukon Delta and up to St. Matthew Island in the Bering Sea. The area is roughly the size of Texas. The new designation does not affect subsistence hunters. Hunters like Simon will still be able to hunt as before. What NOAA hopes the designation will do is help hunters and their descendants by preserving the population.

According to a NOAA spokesperson, the only real regulatory effect is that companies will now have to consult with NOAA when working in this new area. This could include exploratory oil missions, commercial fishing and federal military activities.

Some critics of this new designation point out that the seals don’t actually have low numbers now. It is true, the measure is preventive. Seals are now more numerous than they used to be when they were hunted commercially. Most scientists agree that determining the exact population size is difficult. But scientists, academics and people with traditional knowledge say those numbers could continue to decline as sea ice recedes.

In many ways, the dispute over critical seal habitat is a dispute over how to manage resources as the climate continues to warm. As sea ice retreats and seals are more at risk, the waters will also open up and become available for oil exploration and commercial fishing.

Sense. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan are calling the new federal regulations override. They say that by requiring the military to consult on their activities, the regulations impact national security. They also worry that the regulations will hurt businesses. Alaska Native co-managers in the area share the business concerns.

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The Ice Seal Committee is a working group that includes the five Alaska Native nonprofit organizations along the entire Bering Sea coast. It co-manages these waters with NOAA. The committee drafted a letter to NOAA last year saying that with other federal restrictions currently in place to protect other animals in the region, such as polar bears and walruses, more restrictions will not bring any real benefit to the seals. The committee said the regulations could have a negative impact on the development of their own resources and on their economies. Simon, the seal hunter, sits on this committee.

Environmental historian Bathsheba Demuth has written a book on the environmental history of the Bering Strait. She said an unregulated industry could harm seals.

“Bearded seals like to sing to each other. So if the Bering Strait is filled with more shipping traffic, it can disrupt them. There is additional pressure because the increased shipping traffic in the Bering Strait is likely to increase as the sea ice decreases,” Demuth said.

Demuth said that although climate change is the main culprit here, protecting these habitats could also help the seals.

“Having spaces where they’re less likely to be stressed in other ways, to me, seems interesting just because these are species that are going to face a lot of change in the next few years to come and the next decade.” , said Demuth.

A NOAA spokeswoman said while she was not aware of any ongoing lawsuits against the critical habitat designation, it could be challenged in court. She also said that the designation is reassessed every five years. By then, a lot of things could have already changed.

According to NASA, arctic sea ice is now declining at a rate of 13% per decade.

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