Seals struggling in Estonia due to lack of ice

In the coming days, seals are expected to come to their former birthplace on the Estonian coast to give birth. As there is no ice on the sea, there is a danger that they will be disturbed by uninvited guests of both two and four feet.

"Because their usual habitat is on ice, there is nobody there to threaten them. [Without ice], there are foxes, wolves, crows and eagles on the beach, all of which can reach the seals, and their cubs are vulnerable to these animals," seal researcher Mart Jüssi said. In addition, people and dogs who go to the beach can also disturb the seals.

"Our hope is that seals become scared of people and go to places where there aren't any," he added. However, if anyone encounters a seal pup while walking on the beach, Jüssi advises passing it from a distance to minimize the disturbance.

The researcher said while Estonia does not have a so-called seal hospital with experts who are ready to help, there is also no need for one as there is enough space in the country for seals to have their privacy.

"Today, we do not think that we should intervene, for example, to collect and raise them," he said.

Theoretical readiness

As this is first time in Estonia, readiness is, Jüssi said, theoretical. There is a need to explore the conditions for the seals and then to try to apply that knowledge in the future.

Tõnu Talvi, a nature conservation specialist at the Environmental board, said this year's mild winter is difficult for many arctic species, but this is especially true for the ringed seals, who until now have only calved on the ice.

"In recent decades, there have been such mild winters where there is little ice, and we know of different areas along the west coast where gray seals can cope with small islets but this is a serious problem for the ringed seals," he said.

He recommends reducing the movement on the coasts of west Estonia and the islands during seal calving from mid-February to mid-March, with a so-called seal rehabilitation center in preparation.

"But first and foremost, we hope that nature can handle things like this abnormal winter. Our main message is that people should interfere as little as possible to not make things even worse," Talvi said. 

He reminds people that the seal pup on the beach is not frightened or cold, and that his mother will also keep an eye on him. While passersby often think they are helping the situation, they are actually breaking the connection between the mother and cub.

"It's really bad to start intervening there, to move it, to help it somehow, to push it into the water because, for example, during the first month of their life, seals avoid water," he said.

Faithful to their homeland

This year, ice is hundreds of kilometers away in the Gulf of Bothnia, but seals will not calve there, because as Jüssi says, they are loyal to their homeland. If the mild winters continue and the sea does not freeze, the ringed seals will die out in Estonian waters in a couple of decades and will only be found here as exotic summer visitors.

Grey seals are less climate-sensitive, but they are likely to be moving north. So far, Estonia has had the largest breeding grounds for grey seals. Most seals born on Estonian ice also come here to give birth. Jüssi said, they have also come from Copenhagen and returned afterwards.

About 4,000 seal pups are born in Estonia every year, and when the sea is frozen, there is an endless supply of ice for everyone. In this warm winter, seals must come to dry land, but as there are too few islands in Estonia, the coast will be overcrowded. "But the problem with the islands is that it's like putting 120 children in a three-room apartment," Jüssi said.

A seal has so much wisdom that when she has lost a couple of cubs, she would rather switch places. "They start at their place of birth because their own presence is the best proof that it is a good place. But the grey seal is moving towards the ice during a couple of decades," the researcher said. This is how we lose grey seals in Estonia, but not in the Baltic Sea. The number of ringed seals has not increased in Estonia since 1995, so far there have been around thousand of them. 

Jüssi said this year a year for studying the behaviour of seals. "Before we know what seals do when there is no ice, we need to think about whether we can help them at all," he said.


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Editor: Roberta Vaino

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