all to save the seals of Lake Saimaa

Recognizable by the white rings drawn on their skin, these seals are found only in the Finnish lake region, close to the Russian border. If the site currently has 400 seals like Eeva, four times more than in the 1980s, for ecologists, this number is far from enough to guarantee the species’ survival.

— with AFP

Whiskers on the water’s surface, Eeva enjoys the tranquility of Lake Saimaa, Finland, which is home to one of the rarest seal species in the world, but also the most endangered. “She won’t leave because we’ve known each other for almost thirty years”smiles Risto Eronen, a retiree who, since childhood, has closely watched the comings and goings of Saimaa seals. “She is the old lady of Saimaa and has given birth to ten babies in her life”tells AFP the septuagenarian, installed in his boat a few meters from the mammal.

In mid-June, the seals left their breeding ground on the rocks for the depths of the lake. Only Eeva – and her cry so private – deigns to show herself. “She grabbed a line (…), began to make heavy whistles” and spend a lot more time on the surface to breathe, says Risto Eronen. “Most likely it’s because of a hook in the throat”.

Recognizable by the white rings drawn on their skin, these seals are found only in the Finnish lake region, close to the Russian border. If the site currently has 400 seals like Eeva, four times more than in the 1980s, for ecologists, this number is far from enough to guarantee the species’ survival. “Mild winters caused by climate change made their lives more difficult”as seals need ice and snow to build their breeding densexplains Kaarina Tiainen, from the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation (SLL). But today it is especially the Vendace fishery – a small white fish eaten in the summer – that poses the greatest danger to the species., according to activists. Four to eight juveniles are caught in nets each year.

Despite its consequences on phocids,
Fishermen continue against the ban on net fishing

Although most of Lake Saimaa’s 4,400 square kilometers were recently covered by net fishing restrictions, the government has refused to renew them. These measures triggered a vast opposition movement in this tourist mecca, which has 50,000 summer cottages and registered more than one million overnight stays a year before the Covid-19 pandemic. “Net fishing is a way of life for many here”says Teemu Himanen, whose fishing association issued 980 net fishing licenses in 2020. Many believe the threats to seals are overblown. “If the net is properly anchored to the bottom, the fence can easily avoid getting caught in it”.

However, to compensate for the lifting of restrictions, the SLL now encourages fishermen to sign a declaration of abandoning net fishing, in exchange for which they receive a fish trap. While Teemu Himanen welcomes this initiative, he believes these free traps won’t satisfy many people: “You just can’t catch so many in a trap”.

Achieve an adequate level of protection

Finnish authorities this year requested that the habitat of the Saimaa ringed seal be inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The species, considered “in danger” by the Finnish and European authorities, seems to win the favor of the Nordic people, most Finns are in favor of stronger legislation to protect these animals. But “More and more people want to come to the region to see the animals themselves, which involves a constant balance”explains Kaarina Tiainen.

Furthermore, as the number of Saimaa ringed seals increases, the question of relaxing protective measures arises more for fishermen. “When there were only 300 seals, they were saying that we needed to (check the nets) to increase their number to 400. But now we’re past 400 and the discussion still hasn’t stopped.”regrets Mr. Himanen.

The government’s objective is to achieve “an adequate level of protection” and conservationists say the population would need to reach at least 1,000 — possibly 2,000 individuals — before protections could be lifted. But for Kaarina Tiainen, “maybe we will never reach a situation where the species is not threatened”.

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