Finland is a country known for its vast, beautiful green forest (73% of the country) and its 187,000 lakes (10% of the country). Lake Saimaa is the largest lake in Finland, and the fourth largest natural, freshwater lake in Europe. It is located in the province of Eastern Finland (also known as the Finnish lake district), a little over 230 kilometers from Helsinki. Many wild animals live in the Lake Saimaa area including: elk, foxes, small predators, the blue hare, wolves, and bears. However, many do not know that Lake Saimaa is home to the rarest seal on earth, the Saimaa Ringed seal.
The Saimaa Ringed seals (Pusa hispida saimensis) are a freshwater subspecies of the ringed seal. They are descended from ringed seals, and were separated from the rest when the land rose after the last ice age. They have been isolated in Finland’s largest lake ever since. Adapting to their habitat, the seals’ brain and eyes grew larger than those of its near relatives. They are known for having a darker color than other ringed seals.
Their height ranges between 85–160 cm (2.79–5.25 ft) in length. They weigh between 50–90 kilograms (110–200 lbs). Generally, the males are larger than the females. They exclusively eat fish, including: smelt, perch, and roach. Saimaa Ringed seals make burrowed dens close to the shore and reproduce once a year. A Saimaa ringed seal pregnancy lasts around 11 months, with a 80%–95% pregnancy success rate. These adorable seals reach maturity when they are between 4 and 6 years old, and can live to be over 20 years old. They are believed to be as intelligent as a dog.
Due to hunting, environmental toxins, changes in the water level during the breeding season, and by-catch mortality, the Saimaa ringed seal population decreased rapidly toward the end of the 20th century. Some of the threats have been reduced, and the Saimaa Ringed Seal population has been growing. However, the Saimaa ringed seal is considered endangered, with a population of only 410 seals left as of 2019.
- By-catch mortality. Pups, in particular, can get entangled in gill nets and drown in fish traps.
- Climate change. A snowy winter is essential for the survival of seal pups. Seals need snow to build the lairs where they give birth. These lairs protect their offspring from the cold, predators, and human disturbance. Due to climate change, the snow covering Lake Saimaa has not been deep enough to create the seals’ lairs.
- Small population. Since many of the Saimaa ringed seals are closely related, when they mate it can weaken their gene pool.
- Building on shorelines. The increase of year-round living on the shores of Lake Saimaa has decreased the amount of areas suitable for the seals’ breeding and habitat.
With that in mind there is some good news for the Saimaa ringed seals. Conservation groups and the University of Eastern Finland have proposed new regulations to restrict fishing in the habitat of the Saimaa ringed seals. The annual count of Saimaa ringed seal nests began earlier this month. On April 7, 2021, experts at national forestry and wildlife agency Metsähallitus estimated that the Saima Ringed seal population could grow by up to 20 individuals. Finally, as of April 22, 2021, the Saimaa region (home to the Saimaa Ringed seals) has received UNESCO Global Geopark status.
Although these Finnish seals have overcome many obstacles, and still face much adversity ahead, there are resources available for you to help these precious seals. WWF, Metsähallitus, and Suomen luonnonsuojeluliitto all work to protect the Saimaa ringed seals.
Here is a short video, featuring a beautiful recovery story of a Saimaa ringed seal named Sanelma.
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Photo: Visit Saimaa’s Facebook