Finland rallies to save one of the world’s most endangered seals

Finland rallies to save one of the world’s most endangered seals

Pumala: The calm, icy waters of Finland’s Saimaa Lake are a boon to fishermen and tourists, but their presence also threatens one of the world’s rarest and most endangered seals.
Despite seeing an improvement in numbers in recent decades, the Saimaa Ringed Seal still faces extinction amid climate change and difficult fishing habits.
On Saimaa, a dark brown, whispering creature raises its head and breaks the surface in Finland’s Lake District, close to the Russian border.
“She’s Eva, she’s not swimming because we’ve known each other for almost 30 years,” smiles Aronan, a retired risto who has closely watched seals since childhood, which are found only in the freshwater of the lake. go.
“She is Saima’s old lady and has given birth to 10 puppies in her life,” he tells AFP in his boat just a few meters away.
The population of ‘Simonorappa’, which is called a mammal in Finnish, reached 400 this year, four times more than in the 1980s, when it was expected to be completely eradicated.
But this is still not enough to ensure the survival of the subspecies, campaigners say.
“The mild winters caused by climate change have made their lives difficult,” explains Karina Tienen of the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation (SLL), “because seals need snow and ice for their reproduction.”
But the most acute threat to the seal, according to campaigners, is fishing for vengeance, a small whitefish, and a delicious delicacy with four to eight seal pups in the summer, which are caught in the nets annually.
By mid-June, all seals have left their rocky breeding sites for the depths of the lake, except for Eva, who prefer the surface and are recognizable by their unusual bark.
“Most likely it’s because of the fishing hook around his neck,” says Aronan.
“She got stuck in a line and that same spring-time started making heavy wheezing sounds” and began spending more time on the surface to get oxygen.
Most of Saimaa’s 4,400 square kilometers were covered by net-fishing restrictions, but the government refused to renew them at the end of June, preferring a voluntary arrangement.
The ban on net fishing has generated passionate resistance in the tourist hotspot dotted with 50,000 summer cottages and which attracted more than a million for overnight stays a year before the pandemic.
“Fishing for vengeance with nets is a way of life for many people here,” says Teemu Himanen, whose local union last year issued 980 net fishing licenses for just a portion of Saimaa.
“People are biting to be able to start net-fishing again in July,” he says, adding that many think the threat to the seals has increased.
“If the net is fitted properly from the bottom, the seal can easily avoid getting caught in it, even if it eats the fish out of it.”
To compensate for the end of the net ban, SLL and volunteers are building 100 seal-safe fish nets with green wire netting to distribute free of charge.
One Saturday morning in the village of Koikkala, 100 male and female fishing enthusiasts line up at a tent to sign a declaration that they will give up net fishing before being given a free net.
The initiative’s popularity is a sign that “the desire to protect the ring seal is growing rapidly” in recent years, says conservationist Tiannan.
Himanon welcomes the move but says: “I don’t believe you will ever be able to completely get rid of the trap on Saimaa.
“You can’t catch the same number in a trap.”
This year Finnish authorities submitted a bid for habitats of the Saimaa Ringed Seal, identified by the distinctive white circles on its fur, to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The subspecies is already classified as ‘endangered’ by Finnish and EU authorities, and polls show that most Finns support stricter legislation to protect the animal.
As the seal’s plight attracts more attention, “more people want to come to this area to see the animals, so there is a constant balancing act,” Tianen admits.
And as Simonorappa numbers rise, the question arises of when to relax protective measures.
“When there were only 300 seals, they said we needed to control the net to get the numbers up to 400. But now we are past 400 and that conversation still hasn’t stopped,” Himemann notes.
The government wants to reach a “reasonable level of security” without setting a figure, yet for campaigners, the population will need at least a thousand or two before security can be reduced.
“But we can never be in a situation where it isn’t in some way a threat and doesn’t need protection,” Tienen says.

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