Once widespread in Finland, the Saimaa ringed seal (Phoca hispida saimensis) is now found only in the Saimaa fragmented freshwater lake complex. At the beginning of the project, with a small population of about 310 seals, the species was probably the world’s most endangered seal species, categorised by the IUCN as Critically Endangered. In Annex II of the Habitats Directive it is listed as a species that needs strict protection. The most severe threats to the seal population are fishing and disturbance during breeding. Climate change also poses an increasingly serious long-term threat. A Finnish Conservation Strategy and Action Plan for the Saimaa ringed seal was adopted in 2011, in order to improve the conservation status of the species.
The LIFE Saimaa Seal project aimed to reduce the main threats to the Saimaa ringed seal, which were identified in the Finnish Conservation Strategy. It, in particular, seek to reduce risks related to fishing, disturbance by humans, and climate change. The results of the project were used in the updating of the Conservation Strategy and related regulations. The main goals of the project included: reducing by-catch mortality by developing seal-friendly fishing methods for professional and recreational fishing, and by reinforcing compliance with fishing restrictions; reducing human-induced disturbances by identifying and defining risk areas, and by guiding land-use planning and activities in vulnerable areas; facilitating adaptation to climate change by developing a method of producing man-made snow-drifts; involving local people in conservation actions; updating knowledge on potential threats to the seals; and increasing awareness among fishermen, tourists and children about the seal.
The LIFE Saimaa Seal project successfully addressed the main threats to the Saimaa ringed seal (Phoca hispida saimensis), namely fishing by-catch, human-induced disturbance and climate change, thus contributing to the improvement of its conservation status in the long-term. Species number increased from 310, at the start, to 390 individuals by the end of the project and the species was downgraded from “critically endangered” to “endangered” in 2015. Based partly on the project results, the Conservation Strategy and Action Plan for the Saimaa ringed seal was updated and approved by the Finnish Ministry of the Environment in 2017. The project also contributed to the renewal of the national Fishing Act in 2016.
Fishing by-catch mortality was reduced by developing seal-friendly fishing methods. The project team developed seal-safe fyke nets, which were tested and accepted in the new Finnish Fishing Act in 2016. Results indicated that the fyke nets were a cost-effective and selective alternative to gill-nets, which are dangerous for seals. Also produced were 522 seal-safe fish traps, while 3 000 old fish traps were modified by seal-safe stoppers. Reduced risk of human-induced disturbance was achieved by establishing the habitat usage, movements and breeding areas of the seal, thereby identifying risk areas where man and seal interact. The project team produced guidelines for land-use planning and other activities in vulnerable areas, and reinforced restrictions prevailing in the area. The project partners helped the species adapt to climate change by demonstrating methods whereby breeding conditions can be improved using man-made tools. A total of 1 086 man-made snowdrifts were produced, which can increase pup survival by providing adequate snow cover during mild winters, and two types of artificial nest structure were successfully tested.
A strengthened role for voluntary work was achieved through a network of more than 400 volunteers, who were trained and participated in project activities, mainly by preparing snowdrifts and during the annual censuses. Altogether over 9 person-years of volunteer work was performed in the project. Volunteers are important for species whose distribution area is wide, and monitoring and conservation activities are labour-intensive. The project team also improved knowledge on the seals using various scientific methods (e.g. telemetry, underwater lair-censuses, questionnaires sent to stakeholders).
Several large information campaigns organised by the project increased awareness of the seal among different groups (e.g. fishers, municipal planners, children, holiday home owners and tourists). A total of 11 000 children were reached through school visits and education events, 5 ‘seal camps’, and education material prepared and distributed to all day care centres in the area. The project’s seal exhibition was developed for the regional museum in Savonlinna. Media coverage of the project’s events was high. During the project, members of parliament, including the Minister of Agriculture and Environment (Kimmo Tiilikainen), and even the President of Finland (Sauli Niinistö) attended volunteer work activities.
The Saimaa ringed seal is an endangered, highly protected subspecies of ringed seal. Project actions to protect it contribute to the objectives of the implementation of the EU Habitats Directive (listed in annexes II and IV), the EU Biodiversity Strategy, and national policy for the species. The long-term goal is to reach a favourable conservation status for the Saimaa ringed seal, which in the national Conservation Strategy and Action Plan for the Saimaa ringed seal is 400 seals by 2025.
The project’s management plans also promoted the conservation of other nature values in the relevant Natura 2000 sites. Areas purchased for conservation are important for ensuring the breeding of Saimaa ringed seal and other species in the area. By engaging local stakeholders and authorities, acceptance of management methods has been enhanced; while awareness-raising activities placed an emphasis on the seal’s role as a symbol of Lake Saimaa, thus creating a sense of local ownership for the species. Seal tourism is of increasing importance to the local economy. In total, 46.9 working-days were created during the project, and services, equipment and consumables purchased amounted to €1.5 million, benefitting local businesses.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).