May 6, 2009

Saimaa Seal Population Dwindles

On Tuesday, Finnish conservation biologists announced that the number of rare Saimaa seal pups born declined this winter compared to 2008.

The announcement sparked a government response promising tighter fishing regulations.

Lake Saimaa, Finland's largest lake, is home to nearly 260 Saimaa seals.

According to Metsaehallitus, a state agency, only 43 cubs were found at Lake Saimaa this spring, which is eight less than a year ago.

"This is alarming because we had two warm winters with small number of pups and now we had another small age group. This will slow the growth of the population in the future," Tero Sipilae of Metsaehallitus told AFP.

Although the decline may seem small, up to 30 percent of cubs die during their first year, often getting caught in fishing nets as they swim.

The seals appear on the European Union's endangered species list.  The seal population has dwindled due to pollution, warm winters, and dangerous fishing equipment.

According to data from Metsaehallitus, the seal population increased from 189 in 1990 to 280 in 2005, but fell to 260 last year.

The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation and other environmental organizations have criticized the government for not imposing tougher fishing regulations in areas where the seal lives.

Currently the ministry of agriculture and forestry is working on a proposal that would ban fishing nets in Saimaa.  The proposal could become law as soon as next year.

"We will soon present a change in the fishing law, which would enable banning fishing nets to protect the Saimaa seal," said Sirkka Anttila, the minister of agriculture and forestry.