In Finland, the battle to save the world’s most endangered seals

Its vibrissae on the water’s surface, Eeva enjoys the tranquility of Lake Saimaa in Finland, which is home to one of the rarest seal species in the world, but also the most endangered.

“She’s not leaving 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 from Saimaa and she has given birth to ten babies in her life,” the septuagenarian told AFP, sitting on 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 clung to a line (…), started making strong whistles” and spent much more time on the surface to breathe, explains Risto Eronen. “Most likely it’s a hook to the throat.”

Recognizable by the white rings drawn on their fur, 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 have made their lives more difficult,” as seals need ice and snow to build their breeding dens, says Kaarina Tiainen of the Finnish Nature Conservation Association (SLL).

But today it is mainly the Vendace fishery – a small white fish consumed in the summer – that poses the greatest danger to the species, according to activists. Four to eight juveniles are caught in nets each year.

– Prohibition of 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 movement of opposition 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.

He said many believe the threats to seals are exaggerated. “If the net is properly anchored to the bottom, the seal 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 one trap.”

– “Proper 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 “endangered” by Finnish and European authorities, appears to be a favorite of the Nordics, with a majority of Finns 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 said we needed (check the nets) to increase their number to 400. But now we’re past 400 and the discussion still hasn’t stopped”, laments Himanen.

The government’s goal is to achieve “an appropriate level of protection” and conservationists say the population would need to reach at least 1,000 – possibly 2,000 individuals – before protections can be lifted.

But for Kaarina Tiainen, “we may never reach a situation where the species is not threatened.”

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