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Ultra-rare Saimaa seals still dying in fishing nets

At least two critically-endangered Saimaa Ringed Seals have drowned recently in fishing nets in eastern Finland's lake district. Restrictions on the use of such nets are in effect from mid-April through June. The seal population has edged up from a low of around 100 to some 360 now.

The Saimaa seal is one of the world's rarest. Image: Ismo Pekkarinen / AOP

Two rare Saimaa Ringed Seals have been killed in fishing nets since late March, says the Finnish forest administration Metsähallitus. There are only about 360 of the critically-endangered seals, which are endemic to the lake district of eastern Finland.

The most recent find was a 42-kilo female found on Friday in Haukivesi, the central basin of the sprawling Saimaa lake system. She drowned in a pike-perch net at a depth of nine metres.

A pike-perch net was also the culprit about a week earlier, when a 30-kilo male was found entangled at a depth of 20 metres in the Joutenvesi-Pyyvesi Natura area.

Verkkoon hukkunut kuutti
A seal pup that drowned in a net in 2015. Image: Juha Taskinen / SLL

A day after that, on April 1, a dead pup weighing 5.5 kilos was discovered in Pihlajavesi. Bones of a fourth seal were found on frozen Haukivesi back in January.

Restrictions on fishing with nets in seal habitat areas have been tightened in recent years, but the practice is still allowed during the winter. Summer restrictions take effect this Saturday, April 15, and extend to the end of June.

Back from the brink of extinction

As climate change brings increasingly mild winters and fewer suitable snow drifts for nest-building, seals are now partly dependent on piles of snow scraped together by volunteers.

Volunteers are also helping seal researchers with their annual seal-den census, which began last Saturday. So far there is no word on how many youngsters were born – or survived –during the past mild winter.

"The number of pups has been gradually increasing. The expectation is that there are more than 80 this year," says Tero Sipilä, a senior advisor at Metsähallitus's Parks & Wildlife Finland (formerly known as Natural Heritage Services).

Last spring WWF Finland's researchers counted 79 pups, of which four had died. The population is slowly on the rise after falling to around 100 individuals in the early 1980s.

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