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National Park Service handout photo dated January 11, 2011 shows Mount McKinley in Alaska.Credit: Reuters

Alaska: rare freshwater seals may be threatened by proposed mine

By Yereth Rosen | 5 December 2012

(Reuters) – A little-understood population of lake-dwelling harbor seals in Alaska deserve Endangered Species Act protections, and the proposed Pebble Mine poses dire threats to the animals, according to a petition filed recently by an environmental group.

The Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to list the small population of Iliamna Lake seals as endangered or threatened.

Iliamna Lake, in southwestern Alaska, is the state’s largest and deepest lake. The seals there make up one of only two known populations of freshwater seals in North America and one of only five in the world, according to biologists

Development of the Pebble Mine, an open-pit project being pursued by mining giants Anglo American and Canadian junior Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd, would put the seals at risk of extinction, the petition argues. The mine poses a “catastrophic threat” to the animals, the petition says. “Absent ESA listing, there are no regulatory mechanisms in place that would specifically protect the Iliamna Lake seal from the likely devastating impacts of Pebble Project development,” the petition says.

The mine project is targeting what its developers say is one of the world’s largest known concentrations of copper, gold, molybdenum and silver. The mine seeks to extract 80.6 billion pounds of copper, 107.4 million ounces of gold, 5.6 billion pounds of molybdenum, among other resources.

The giant project has proved highly controversial because of its location near southwestern Alaska’s Bristol Bay. The bay holds the world’s largest natural

runs and supports thriving commercial and sport fisheries. The waters are also teeming with other fish and with marine mammals, and the adjacent lands are important habitat for bears, moose and other wildlife.

The mine is far from a sure thing, as no development permits have been issued. But the project is big enough to put the seals in danger, said one representative of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s far enough along that, I believe, it does pose a real threat,” said Kiersten Lippmann, an Anchorage-based biologist with the center.

Other factors that make the seals vulnerable are climate change and ocean acidification, which could diminish the fish runs that the animals eat, Lippmann said.

Knowledge about the Iliamna Lake seals is limited.

NOAA scientists started doing extensive surveys of the population in 2009, and research indicates that about 300 seals there, according to state and federal agencies. It is still unclear whether the all the Iliamna seals are year-round lake residents, but there are no known migrations to saltwater, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Key to any listing decision would be a finding that the Iliamna Lake seals are members of a distinct population, Lippmann said. There is abundant evidence that the lake seals are unique, she said.

The center’s petition lists some of that evidence: a different reproductive schedule, with pups born a month later than those of saltwater seals; darker and distinctly patterned fur; larger heads and bodies; distinct behavior adapted to lakeshores.

The Pebble Mine partners disagree. Information gathered for the project’s baseline studies suggests that some of the seals travel between freshwater and saltwater through one of the area’s rivers, said Mike Heatwole, spokesman for the Pebble Limited Partnership.

The developers’ baseline environmental studies, which devote a section to the seals, conclude that there are no “geographical barriers” to movement between the lake and the bay and that “current evidence is insufficient” to determine whether the lake seals are distinct or isolated from saltwater populations.

Heatwole said the Center for Biological Diversity has broader motives than protecting the seals. “We know the CBD is doing this exclusively to stop us,” or at least to make the mine development more difficult, he said. But the effort is “shortsighted,” he said.

For Pebble, “It’s certainly not a show-stopper,” he said. However, he said, listing could hurt other human activities on or around the lake, including barge deliveries to the Native villages and the traditional Native seal hunt.

The seals are not the only mysterious features of Iliamna Lake, which Lippmann describes as a “very under-visited area in the world.”

Local legend says a Loch Ness-type monster named “Illie” lurks in the waters. Alleged sightings date back to the 1940s and inspired an episode of “River Monsters,” a program broadcast by the Animal Planet.

Earlier this year, an Alaska scientist speculated that the “Illie” sightings over the years may, instead, be sightings of sleeper sharks that have made their way into the lake.

 

The Center for Biological Diversity’s Endangered Species Act petition is available at:

http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/mammals/Iliamna_Lake_seal/pdfs/Iliamna_Lake_Seal_Petition_11-19-12.pdf

 

The Pebble Limited Partnership’s baseline information about the lake seals is available at:

http://wwwpebblepartnership.com/perch/resources/report-n-overview-terrestrial-wildlife-and-habitat.pdf

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Climate and Energy

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