Finland’s endangered Saimaa seal population climbing back

Finland hopes to reach a Saimaa seal population of 400 by 2020. (Petri Vironen/Yle)
The population of the endangered Saimaa ringed seal has risen to 392 individuals in Finland, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. An estimated 86 seal pups were born this year, a figure that experts say bodes well for the species.

In 2017 a total of 286 snow dens were built by volunteers, and 74 seal pups were eventually born in some of them. The figure for the whole of 2014-2017 is 190 pups born in close to 800 artificial snow banks. Just over half of all Saimaa ringed real pups born in this period entered the world in a den constructed by humans.

There are 13 breeding areas in the country, located mainly in the national parks of Kolovesi and Linnansaari in south-east Finland. The most seals were found in the breeding grounds of Pihlajavesi, where 124 were counted.

The Ministry of Agriculture credits volunteer helpers for the positive growth. Since 2014 people have gathered together to shovel snow into larger snowdrifts on rocks and shorelines, so the seals can burrow birthing dens into them.

Climate change has been depleting the seals’ natural winter habitats as the warmer winters have limited snow and ice cover. For decades, dozens of seals also died each year in area fishing nets.

After a strong public information campaign, the Ministry of Agriculture reports that the number of Saimaa seals killed by fishing is now in decline. It estimates the current size of the species’ territory at some 2,700 square kilometres.

An endemic subspecies rebounds

The Saimaa ringed seal is unique to Finland’s Saimaa lake system, where the species was isolated by the last ice age some 9,500 years ago.

The population fell to between 100 and 150 seals in 1983. The fact that the 2018 count has estimated a population close to 400 is significant, as this has long been seen as a benchmark for avoiding the threat of the endemic species’ extinction.

The number of seals in the 2018 count was determined through breeding analysis and observations of individuals resting on lake ice.

This year’s tally found 109 birthing Saimaa ringed seal females, as opposed to 83 in 2012, and only 77 in 2007.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: This caribou herd population has dropped 99 % since 2001, CBC News

Finland: Live seal cam returns to mesmerise Finnish viewers, Yle News

Greenland: Binding agreement on Arctic fisheries moratorium officially signed by EU and nine countries, Radio Canada International

Norway: Barents Sea ecosystem undergoing dramatic change, study shows, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russia adds small Arctic island to large national park, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Poachers suspected behind dwindling wolf numbers in Sweden, Radio Sweden

United States: Trump administration to drop new “critical habitat” for endangered species designation, Alaska Public Media

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