Ringed seals are the most abundant high arctic seal and although no accurate global estimate is available, the species is thought to number at least a few million animals (Reeves 1998).
Arctic ringed seals do not form large seasonal aggregations, as do some other seal species, and often occupy areas of pack ice that are extremely remote and inaccessible to hunters. These factors decrease their vulnerability to overexploitation. Harvests in Canada, Greenland and Russia have been sustained for hundreds or even thousands of years with little evidence of depletion. On the other hand reliable information on ringed seal numbers is lacking for most areas, so it is not possible to describe trends in the populations.
The NAMMCO Scientific Committee concluded in 1996 that harvests of arctic ringed seals in the Baffin Bay area (Area 1) were likely sustainable, but cautioned that more information was needed on ringed seal distribution and numbers, especially in pack ice areas (NAMMCO 1997). Harvests in other areas of the North Atlantic presently pose no threat to the populations.
However, the persistence of the Arctic ringed seal, and other subspecies, will be challenged by the impacts of climate change which are already apparent in the Arctic (e.g., Meier et al. 2004, Rosing-Asvid 2006, 2010, Kelly et al. 2010, Lydersen et al. 2007, 2010, 2014, Kovacs et al. 2008, 2012, Kovacs 2014). Habitat loss and deterioration caused by decreases in sea-ice and snow cover will for example lead to increases in pup mortality from premature weaning, hypothermia and predation. Other indirect impacts are also expected, including changes in the food web, increased predation and increased disturbance by human activities. See under 'Other human impacts' for more detail.
It is predicted that, within the foreseeable future, the number of Arctic ringed seals will decline substantially, and they will no longer persist in substantial portion of their range (Kelly et al. 2010). Kovacs (2014) stresses the importance of developing and implementing an Arctic ringed seal monitoring program, given the ecological and subsistence importance of this species in the Arctic.
Both the international programs CAFF (Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna) and AMAP (Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program) under the Arctic Council have specifically requested that all of the Arctic countries launch scientific monitoring programs on ringed seal population structure, trends in abundance, vital rates and age structures because of this species value as an ‘indicator species’ for monitoring global climate change and contaminant patterns. Today only Norway has a national program for ringed seal monitoring.
Commercial harvests in the Sea of Okhotsk and predator‐control harvests in the Baltic Sea, Lake Ladoga, and Lake Saimaa caused dramatic population declines in the past but have since been restricted. Current harvest levels appear to be low and sustainable. Kovacs et al. (2008) and Kelly et al. (2010) provide status reviews for these four subspecies, which are summarized below.
No recent population data are available for the Sea of Okhotsk population and the current population trend is unknown, but thought to be stable. Climate change impacts are likely to have negative consequences, with decreases in sea-ice quality and extent. The range of the population is bounded by land to the North, and the opportunity to contract its range with the ice is limited.
The Baltic Sea population is presently depleted. However, some recovery in this population has been observed in recent years (Härkönen et al. 1998), with a positive population trend in the Gulf of Bothnia, the primary breeding area (Karlsson et al. 2007). Climate change is likely to also have an effect on this subspecies, as current sea ice trends in the Baltic and projections for the next 30 years pose a major threat to all southern populations in the Baltic, with only the Gulf of Bothnia likely to retain fairly good winter sea-ice habitat for ringed seals (Meier et al. 2004).
The Lake Ladoga population is depleted and likely decreasing with mortality due by-catch in fishing gear accounting for 10-16% of the population annually (Verevkin et al. 2006), which is clearly unsustainable. Climate change will be likely lead to a decrease ice habitat and increased pup mortality. As it is a landlocked population, Ladoga ringed seal cannot disperse to new habitat.
The Lake Saimaa population is severely depleted and considered as endangered, with less than 300 seals remaining. Population growth rates vary across the different regions of the lake and are positive in some areas and negative in others. The overall population may increase, but seals may no longer be present in some region of the lake (Sipilä 2006). Bycatch is a significant source of mortality (e.g., Sipilä and Kokkonen 2008), which adds to the consequences of reproductive failure in recent years due to poor ice conditions. Continued degradation of ice and snow habitat will likely further threaten the survival of this population.
Ringed seals have no special conservation status under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES) and are not listed in any appendix.
On the IUCN “Red list”, ringed seal are listed as Least Concern in an assessment made in 2008. However this assessment stipulates that "However, given the risks posed by climate change to all Ringed Seal subspecies, including the Arctic Ringed Seals, this species should be reassessed within a decade" (Kovacs et al. 2008).
WWF not only sees the Greenlandic Inuit hunt of seals, including ringed seals, as an important component of Greenland culture and economy, but considers the Inuit sealing as sustainable and directly supports it. WWF (2013) calls for the EU to address the impacts of their import bans as well as to act in response by informing the European public about the Inuit exemption. It suggests that "with financial support from the EU, the existing certification label be considered expanded to guarantee e.g. sustainability of the hunt, full utilization of catches and animal welfare to meet increasing demands from conscious consumers in the EU as well as worldwide".
In Canada, ringed seal has been listed as Not at Risk by COSEWIC/COSEPAC in 1989, and has not been reviewed since. Ringed seals are not listed in the Norwegian Redlist. It is listed at Least Concern in the Greenlandic RedList.