Saimaa Ringed Seal

No other seal species in the world extends its range further north than ringed seals. The Saimaa ringed seal (Pusa hispida saimensis) is one of five ringed seal subspecies. The others are the Ladoga seal (P. h. ladogensis), the Baltic seal (P. h. botnica), the Okhotsk seal (P. h. ochotensis) and the Arctic ringed seal (P. h. hispida).

The lakes in Eastern Finland lost their connection with what is today the Baltic sea towards the end of the last Ice Age some 8,000 years ago. This era marked the beginning of the Saimaa ring seal’s journey in freshwater environments. The species is well adjusted to living in Lake Saimaa, where the only threat to seals have been humans.

The seal population kept dwindling until the early 1980s. Thanks to conservation measures launched at that time, the population has revived slowly and, in particular, the pups have had a better chance of survival. Today the Saimaa ringed seal is expanding its range and returning to parts of Lake Saimaa where it had died out, including Haapaselkä (Joroinen and Rantasalmi) and Puruvesi (Savonlinna and Kitee).

The Saimaa ringed seal remains endangered (EN). The current population size is around 410 individuals, of which between 155 and 220 are able to reproduce. In recent years, more than 80 pups have been born annually.

As required under the European Union’s Habitats Directive, Finland has undertaken to protect the Saimaa ringed seal. Metsähallitus, Parks and Wildlife Finland is in charge of monitoring and protecting the seal population. This work is carried out in cooperation with the Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment for South Savo, WWF Finland, the University of Eastern Finland and the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation.

Threats to the seal population include fish traps, climate change, disturbance to breeding caused by shoreline construction and other human activity as well as the small and scattered population.

Conservation of the Saimaa ringed seal

Intensified protection has brought noticeable results. Experts at Parks & Wildlife Finland currently put the Saimaa ringed seal population size at approx. 400 individuals. At its lowest point in the late 1980s, the population was as small as 180 to 200 individuals. The population figures refer to the number of individuals surviving over the winter before the pups are born in February and March.

Saimaa ringed seal conservation is directed by the national Saimaa ringed seal conservation strategy and action plan approved by the Ministry of the Environment. This plan is updated every few years, most recently in 2017.

The seals’ reproductive rate and mortality are assessed every year. Lair counts are essential for monitoring the Saimaa ringed seal population and carrying out conservation measures. Numerous volunteers, WWF Finland and the University of Eastern Finland join forces to carry out lair counts and, in winters with little snow, shovel man-made snowdrifts for seal lairs.

The Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment for South Savo is responsible for negotiating on fishing restrictions with local fishery cooperatives. Fishing restrictions aiming to protect ringed seals are laid down by virtue of Government decrees for five years at a time, most recently in 2016. The areas in which fishing restrictions apply are supervised by Parks & Wildlife Finland.

A wintertime watercourse regulation plan for Saimaa has been drawn up in cooperation with the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. This plan, which is part of Lake Saimaa Discharge Rules, accounts for the breeding of seals.

Breeding areas are purchased by Metsähallitus as part of the shore conservation programme and the Natura 2000 network, or nature reserves are set up on private land. Landing is prohibited in the breeding areas in winter, and snowmobiling is restricted in key areas during the breeding season.

Saimaa ringed seal conservation is underpinned by extensive scientific research. Studies are conducted in cooperation with the University of Eastern Finland, the University of Helsinki, the Natural Resources Institute Finland and the Finnish Food Agency, which is responsible for research in veterinary diseases.

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