Dave Withrow / NOAA Fisheries                                 Freshwater seals gather around open water at Iliamna Lake on April 14, 2011.

Dave Withrow / NOAA Fisheries Freshwater seals gather around open water at Iliamna Lake on April 14, 2011.

Group seeks protections for Iliamna seals

A listing would mean permits the government issues for a mine would minimize impacts to the seals.

  • By Dan Joling Associated Press
  • Friday, February 7, 2020 12:00am
  • News

ANCHORAGE — The only known freshwater harbor seals in the U.S. should be listed as threatened or endangered, an environmental group said Thursday in its second petition for the animals. The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned for additional protections for the 400 harbor seals that live at Iliamna Lake in southwest Alaska.

“Without Endangered Species Act protection, we risk allowing these seals to fall victim to the world’s wildlife extinction crisis,” said Kristin Carden, a biologist with the group.

The seals are threatened by climate change, Carden said.

“If the lake ice is not as prevalent, that presents problems for the seals,” she said.

Development of a proposed massive copper and gold mine, the Pebble project, is a more immediate threat, according to the group.

Iliamna Lake is Alaska’s largest and deepest lake. It’s about 75 miles long and 22 miles wide. The seals live about 71 miles from marine seals in Bristol Bay.

The seals are thought to be able to stay year-round by using cracks in the ice, ice caves or underground caves, according to the listing petition. The proposed Pebble open-pit copper and gold mine would increase vessel traffic on the lake, including an ice-breaker ferry that would destroy critical winter habitat, according to the petition. The mine also would harm seals with construction activity, an increase of humans, noise, harm to seals’ prey and habitat contamination through pollution and spills, according to the petition. A listing would require the federal government to ensure that permits it issues for a mine would minimize impacts to the seals, Carden said. A listing also would require designations of the seals’ critical habitat and steps to minimize harm to that habitat.

Julie Speegle, Alaska spokeswoman for the fisheries arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said Thursday the agency has 90 days to determine whether a petition presents substantial information. If the answer is yes, she said, the agency would start a new status review of the Iliamna Lake seals.

The Center for Biological Diversity in November 2012 petitioned to list the seals. NOAA Fisheries conducted a status review but eventually rejected a listing in November 2016. NOAA Fisheries concluded that the seals are discrete from, but not ecologically significant to, the subspecies of harbor seals in the eastern North Pacific.

A study by a University of Washington researcher justifies another look, Carden said. Research published in 2019 indicated that Iliamna seals have a different diet than saltwater seals.

“It showed how their diet that consists primarily of freshwater fish, even when spawning salmon are available, is quite different from marine harbor seals in Bristol Bay,” she said. As the lake seals mature, their diet tends to shift to incorporate more salmon, she said. But the unique diet speaks to the potential for the lake population to have genetic, evolutionary and behavioral traits that contribute to the health of the broader group.

“It might give them advantages as the climate shifts, or as other threats bear on harbor seals,” Carden said. “Having this diversity of diet within the broader group gives the whole group a leg up to confront future changes.”

Mike Heatwole, vice president of public affairs for the Pebble Ltd. Partnership, said by email that the company remains opposed to the listing.

“Our proposed transportation needs for the mine would have one ferry transit per day and should not present an issue to the seals,” he said. “It is worth noting that there is pretty extensive traffic on the lake in the summer months as commercial fishing vessels transit to and from Bristol Bay before and after the fishing season.”

The objections submitted in opposition to the previous petition remain relevant, he said.

More in News

House District 6 race gets 3rd candidate

Alana Greear filed a letter of intent to run on April 5

Kenai City Hall is seen on Feb. 20, 2020, in Kenai, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai water treatment plant project moves forward

The city will contract with Anchorage-based HDL Engineering Consultants for design and engineering of a new water treatment plant pumphouse

Students of Soldotna High School stage a walkout in protest of the veto of Senate Bill 140 in front of their school in Soldotna, Alaska, on Wednesday, April 17, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
SoHi students walk out for school funding

The protest was in response to the veto of an education bill that would have increased school funding

The Kenai Courthouse as seen on Monday, July 3, 2023, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Clam Gulch resident convicted of 60 counts for sexual abuse of a minor

The conviction came at the end of a three-week trial at the Kenai Courthouse

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meets in Seward, Alaska, on Tuesday, April 16, 2024. (screenshot)
Borough awards contract for replacement of Seward High School track

The project is part of a bond package that funds major deferred maintenance projects at 10 borough schools

Kenai Peninsula Education Association President LaDawn Druce, left, and committee Chair Jason Tauriainen, right, participate in the first meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Four Day School Week Ad Hoc Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
4-day school week committee talks purpose of potential change, possible calendar

The change could help curb costs on things like substitutes, according to district estimates

A studded tire is attached to a very cool car in the parking lot of the Peninsula Clarion in Kenai, Alaska, on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Studded tire removal deadline extended

A 15-day extension was issued via emergency order for communities above the 60 degrees latitude line

A sign for Peninsula Community Health Services stands outside their facility in Soldotna, Alaska, on Monday, April 15, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
PCHS to pursue Nikiski expansion, moves to meet other community needs

PCHS is a private, nonprofit organization that provides access to health care to anyone in the community

Jordan Chilson votes in favor of an ordinance he sponsored seeking equitable access to baby changing tables during a meeting of the Soldotna City Council in Soldotna, Alaska, on Wednesday, April 10, 2024. (Jake Dye/Peninsula Clarion)
Soldotna OKs ordinance seeking to increase access to baby changing tables

The ordinance requires all newly constructed or renovated city-owned and operated facilities to include changing tables installed in both men’s and women’s restrooms

Most Read