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Scientists are advising that the ringed seal be listed under the federal Species at Risk Act.

NOAA's Alaska Fisheries Science Center via REUTERS/Reuters

In a sign of the growing impact of climate change on Canada’s wildlife, scientists are advising that the ringed seal, one of the most culturally and ecologically important animals in the Arctic, be listed under the federal Species at Risk Act.

The recommendation, announced on Monday, is notable given that ringed seals are currently abundant across Canada’s vast Arctic coastline, with an estimated population of two million. But it underscores the rapid change that has already begun for a species that depends on sea ice for its survival in a part of the world that is warming at approximately three times the global average.

“If these changes continue, species that are adapted to the Arctic may not go extinct this century but they may be reduced significantly,” said David Lee, who co-chairs a portion of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) that reports on marine mammals. The committee, which concluded its annual meeting in Ottawa on Friday, is an independent body of scientists that provides information and recommendations to the federal government on species at risk.

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It would be difficult to overstate the importance of ringed seals to Arctic marine ecosystems, said Dr. Lee, who is a wildlife biologist with Nunavut Tunngavik, the organization that represents Inuit interests in Nunavut.

Ringed seals are the primary prey of polar bears and are a subsistence food source for coastal communities across the Canadian north from the Beaufort Sea to Labrador and including Hudson Bay. Because they are able to maintain breathing holes in thick sea ice, the seals occupy an ecological niche that is virtually unique.

Now, a gradual loss of the type of sea ice that is present year-round in the Arctic, as well as decreasing snow cover – which ringed seals need to construct dens for their pups – has raised fears that the keystone species could see population declines in the near future.

While there is not enough evidence to say if this has already occurred, Dr. Lee said his subcommittee has gathered reports, primarily from Indigenous hunters, that suggest the occurrence and distribution of ringed seals may be changing. This helped prompt the committee to recommend the government list ringed seals as a species at risk under the category of “special concern.” Such a designation would not imply that the seals are in imminent danger of extinction, but would require action to monitor the species on an ongoing basis. Polar bears have been listed under the same category since 2011.

The government will now have to decide whether to accept and act on the recommendation, a process that typically takes years.

COSEWIC chair John Reynolds, a professor of aquatic conservation and ecology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., said committee members were struck by projections showing the upheaval in store for Arctic habitats because of climate factors.

“It is just shocking – everything is going to change,” he said, adding that the size of Canada’s Arctic and the variability of conditions across the region make it difficult to predict outcomes for its representative species, including the ringed seal.

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In another decision, committee members recommended that the population of striped bass that was native to the St. Lawrence River be officially declared extinct. A casualty of habitat loss and overfishing, the prized fish once yielded an annual commercial catch of up to 50 tonnes per year between the 1920s and the 1950s. The last record of a native striped bass caught in the St. Lawrence was in 1968.

The species was reintroduced in 2002 using striped bass from New Brunswick’s Miramichi River, but because the St. Lawrence population is thought to have been genetically distinct, and separate from others since the end of the last ice age, the extinction designation applies under the Species at Risk Act.

“It is depressing and of course we want to avoid it. But as long as we negatively impact our environment the risk of additional extinctions is very high,” said Nicholas Mandrak, a professor of biology at the University of Toronto Scarborough and a co-chair of the COSEWIC subcommittee on freshwater fishes.

If Ottawa accepts the designation, the change in status could eventually open the door to legal fishing of reintroduced striped bass on the St. Lawrence.

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