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NGOs seek stricter fishing rules to protect endangered Saimaa seals

Conservation groups and the University of Eastern Finland argue that proposed laws will not prevent seal pup deaths.

Last winter many Saimaa seal pups were born on the open ice, as there was insufficient snow for breeding lairs. Image: Ismo Marttinen

New regulations have been proposed to restrict fishing in the habitat of the endangered Saimaa seals, one of the world's rarest seal species.

According to the proposal, fishing restrictions would be imposed on a larger area of the vast Saimaa lake system in eastern Finland, the only place where the species is found. The protection area would be expanded by 300 square kilometres. Net fishing, which poses a danger of entanglement for the seals, would be banned in the area from mid-April until the end of June, except for nets used to catch small whitefish known as vendace.

The proposal has already aroused opposition from conservationists and researchers who say it does not go far enough to prevent drownings in nets, which occur every year. With the species on the brink of extinction with a population of about 410 individuals, each unnecessary death is one too many, biologists say – especially as milder winters make it more difficult for the animals to build breeding lairs in snowdrifts.

The Finnish branch of the WWF, the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation, the Saimaan Norppaklubi association and the University of Eastern Finland have issued a joint statement calling for net fishing to be prohibited through the end of July.

Half of all net drownings in July

The NGOs and the university are critical of the exception for vendace nets and the insufficient coverage of the full extent of the seals' nesting area.

"We build snowbanks [for nesting] and will in future make artificial dens to the extent that we can. But it's a waste of society's resources that each summer young seals die in amateur fishers' nets after they have been nurtured in artificial snowbanks all spring," said University of Eastern Finland Research Fellow Mervi Kunnasranta, who leads a seal research team.

In the past five years, half of all Saimaa seal deaths in fish traps and nets have taken place in July.

Municipalities, official bodies and organisations in the Saimaa region have three weeks to comment on the proposed regulations. The government is to decide on the new fishing restrictions by early April.