The question of whether the ringed and bearded seals will join the polar bear on the federal list of endangered species was debated at a hearing in Anchorage Monday night.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published plans in December to list the ringed and bearded seals as threatened, based on fears that thinning sea ice would hurt their populations.
"If these animals have to move over ice fields that are now over very deep water, then it limits their ability to dive and feed off the bottom," said Brad Smith, a biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "It really changes the ecology of these animals."
The ringed seal lives on solid sea ice near the coast, and burrows into the snow to raise its pups. The bearded seal migrates back and forth between Russia and Alaska. Ringed and bearded seals are a primary source of food for polar bears.
John Goodwin of Kotzebue is head of the Federal Ice Seal Committee. He says he's not ready to say how the committee will weigh in on designating the seals as threatened, but says hunting for seals has been a part of his life since he was a small boy, when he would travel out on the sea ice with his grandfather and uncles by dog team.
He says both types of seal are used for food, clothing and other items. After the meat is removed from a ring seal, the skin is inflated and used as a "poke" or container.
"They come in various sizes," Goodwin says. "Just like when you go to Walmart or somewhere, you look at the containers and say, 'I'm going to use this size, for this purpose.'"
Goodwin says the bearded seal's skin is very tough and good for making skin boats or the soles of traditional Native footwear known as mukluks.
Seals are at the heart of the culture of most Alaska Native coastal communities. For the most part, their numbers remain strong, but the Center for Biological Diversity says action needs to be taken now.
"It doesn't matter how many there are -- if they lose their habitat, they're going to go downhill pretty rapidly," said Rebecca Noblin, the center's Alaska director. "It doesn't matter how many passengers are on the Titanic: when it hits an iceberg, everybody that's in the boat is in trouble."
Channel 2 sought reaction from BP and Shell, but both companies declined comment.
Another hearing has been scheduled in Barrow on March 22. One will also be held in Nome, but no date has been set yet. The deadline to submit written testimony is March 25. Originally the federal government set a 60 day comment period, but expanded it by 45 days.