The endangered Saimaa ringed seal needs a peaceful place to breed in the Finnish winter. LIFE Saimaa Seal enlisted local help to build lairs and change fishing practices to better protect the 370 or so remaining individuals.
The Lake Saimaa area, in eastern Finland, is home to the total population of Saimaa ringed seal (Pusa hispida saimensis). With fewer than 400 individuals, the ringed seal is one of the world’s rarest and most endangered freshwater seals. It is a landlocked and fragmented species, confined since the last ice age to the freshwaters of Lake Saimaa.
The project LIFE Saimaa Seal, which ran until the end of 2018, helped increase the seal population from about 310 to 370 by addressing some of its main threats: fishing gear, diminishing snowfall, and man-made disturbances.
Raisa Tiilikainen from the Natural Heritage Services of Metsähallitus described when you might see a seal during the year, depending on its breeding pattern. “In spring in the central areas of Haukivesi and Pihlajavesi water basins of Lake Saimaa, seals can be spotted very often. This is the moulting season when seals lay on the rocks to dry their changing fur. Sometimes you can also spot a seal during summer or during winter when they come the surface to lay on the ice.”
Each season comes with a different threat for the Saimaa ringed seal, resulting in a complex set of issues. There are also many interest groups who are affected and who need to support the project’s methods. “We combined regulatory and voluntary conservation actions to achieve the best possible results, and worked with locals who formed a wide network of volunteers,” explained Ms Tiilikainen.
Activities by the LIFE project supported the Finnish national conservation strategy and species action plan for the Saimaa ringed seal.
Building safe dens
More than 300 volunteers built over 1 000 snow drifts for the seal population during the project. As winter breeders, ringed seals need enough ice and snow cover to dig dens in snowdrifts where pups are born and nursed. During poor snow conditions, extra cover can decisively increase pup survival – and is currently the best way to ensure population growth.
“The seals accepted the man-made dens really well” said Ms Tiilikainen. Various types were tested according to the amounts of snow and ice: snow drifts and reed nests and – in case of no ice – floating peat nests covered in snow.
This voluntary action reaped pleasing rewards: during the 5 years, 70% of the pups observed were born in man-made dens, rising to 90% during the particularly mild 2014 winter. “The same method could be used for other snow dependent seal species that are threatened by the warming winters and climate change,” explained Ms Tiilikainen.
Local support leads to stronger protections
Being caught in fishing gear is the single biggest cause of early death among Saimaa ringed seals. To reduce mortality rates, the project team tracked movements, habitat use and mortality to help determine the best places to set up fishing restrictions. The data was used to update the national Fishing Act in 2016, which prohibits fishing during the spring and the use of the most dangerous fishing traps all year round. New standards for seal-safe ‘fyke nets’ were also developed and are now required under the law.
Within the course of the project, over 500 fishing nets were exchanged for safe traps.
Considering the local range of the seal, local buy-in was critical. The project worked with professional fishermen and was warmly welcomed by locals. An official game and fish warden from Metsähallitus was brought in to raise awareness about the regulations and patrol the area. “The warden regularly met people to chat about fishing, the ringed seal and how to spend time in the area without disturbing the seals”, explained Ms Tiilikainen. “He also held several media events, taught recreational fishermen to make seal safe fishing traps, and trained the local water district owners about following up on fishing restrictions.”
100 extra protected islands
Protection measures put in place are bolstered by land acquisition by Metsähallitus. Thanks to a real estate deal with the regional ELY centre for environment, and Tornator, a forestry landowner, the project was able to extend the protection area by over 100 small islands. This means a total of 710 ha of water areas around Puumala and Savonlinna where Saimaa seals will benefit from fishing restrictions and other protections.
Management plans for two Natura 2000 areas in the Saimaa region - Joutenveden-Pyyveden and Oriveden-Pyhäselän – have also been prepared.