Critical winter for Finland’s Saimaa seal

Saimaa seal pups thrive in ice and snow. (Yle)
Saimaa seal pups thrive in ice and snow. (Yle)
Nesting for the endangered Saimaa ringed seal is under threat from rising waters and a lack of ice and snow.

It is feared that the combination may again lead to a high death rate for newborn pups.

With a population of only just over 300 individuals, the future of the rare freshwater Saimaa ringed seal (Pusa hispida saimensis) is far from certain. Despite their protected status and efforts to ensure the survival of the species in its habitat in Lake Saimaa, they are facing a growing threat from changes in nature itself.

Females usually give birth to a single pup in late February or early March when lakeshore snow drifts are normally at their peak. The dame digs out a den under the ice and snow at the lake’s edge where she nurses her pup before moving out onto the open ice as spring approaches.

For several years in a row, the mortality rate for newborn pups during the winter whelping season has been higher than normal. Under ideal conditions, the population should grow by 10 percent annually. Right now, the rate of expansion is close to static at only 3 percent. And now, it looks as if this winter will deal yet another, perhaps even more serious blow.

Situation critical

“This winter will maybe be the toughest for the Saimaa seal that I’ve seen during my career,” says Tero Sipilä, a biologist and chief nature conservation inspector for Metsähallitus, an organization which administers most of Finland’s protected areas.

“It looks as if there will be insufficient ice and snow. At the same time, the water level of Lake Saimaa could rise by 20cm in January. That is a huge rise which would normally break up ice along the shoreline. And so, the two main climate threats are impending. The situation is indeed critical and it’s hoped that January will bring frigid temperatures,” Sipilä continues.

Under these fragile circumstances the Saimaa seal cannot withstand any of the further dangers posed by humans, such as fishing nets in which they easily become entangled and drown. Locals can help, though, by shoveling what snow there is now into piles along the shore.

“It really does seem that this has significantly helped. These snow piles have provided relatively good shelter for the pups at the most crucial time. Mortality rates for the pups have been a lot lower [in past years] than what was feared,” explains Tero Sipilä.

Taking responsibility

Even though the recent Paris climate agreement promises to slow global warming, progress will be slow. In order to survive, many generations of the Saimaa seal will have to get through more than one winter without the thick ice and heavy snows that have been their natural breeding environment. Specialists working with the Saimaa seal are seeking ways to ensure survival of the species even through years without snowfall.

“We have to try to find the means and develop them,” says Miina Auttila, an expert on the Saimaa seal working with the Metsähallitus Saimaa Seal LIFE project . “In fact, right now we are developing an artificial den. Possibly this winter we will be able to test one of the prototypes.”

The chances for the survival of these rare creatures, and responsibility for their future, lie with humankind.

“Of course we are responsible. Every population survey and every study has shown this and many people have come to understand this, too. It’s evident in less use of nets by sports fishermen and the people involved in piling up snow. People have a strong desire to preserve the Saimaa seal,” says nature conservation biologist Tero Sipilä.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  Nunavut gets EU exemption for seal products, Eye on the Arctic

Finland:  New measures to protect the Saimaa seal in Finland, Yle News

Greenland:  Reinstilling pride in the Inuit seal hunt, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Harbor seals on the rebound in Sweden, Radio Sweden

United States:  Banned pollutants turn up in Alaska fur seals, Alaska Dispatch News


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