Gray seal census sets new Estonian record

Gray seals.
Gray seals. Source: Ivar Jüssi

More than 6,300 gray seals were recorded off the coast of Estonia this year with the latest census – a new record high. Marine biologist Ivar Jüss said the number has grown rapidly over the last 25 years.

In total, 6,324 seals were counted and while big conclusions should not be drawn based on a single survey, the long-term trend does show that the number has increased, Jüss said.

"If we started in 1999 [...] with somewhere around 1,500 animals and now we are at 6,300, it still shows that the population is doing well," he said on Monday's "Terevisioon" morning show.

In years gone by, counting seals required a boat trip and binoculars, but technology has evolved. "Now we fly with a plane over the main seal areas up to three times. We take pictures from the plane. After we get home we have time to count the seals one by one from the pictures," the marine biologist explained.

The gray seal is doing well because it can easily adapt to environmental changes, Jüss said. It can breed on land and does not seem to lack food and habitats. "It has recovered from its low point in the 1980s," he pointed out.

Jüss said the gray seals in the Baltic Sea are counted as one group because they roam freely. "It could well be that one day they are in Estonia, the next in Sweden, the next in Finland. Danish seals have bred in Estonia, so it's just a small puddle for them," he said.

Gray seal (Halichoerus grypus) Source: Environmental Board

Sooner or later, however, the number of animals will reach its peak. Jüss said the Baltic Sea is becoming crowded: "It's not that seals don't physically fit here, but that they are influenced by food and spatially by the number and presence of breeding sites." 

The marine biologist said this limit will become clear in retrospect when the data stabilizes for five to six years.

Gray seals are most commonly sited on the Western islands, but occasionally they can also be seen around harbors, such as Pirita in Tallinn.

Last year, 6,031 seals were counted in Estonian waters, and approximately 5,500 each year between 2019-2021.

The gray seal (Halichoerus grypus) is one of two seal species to be found off the Estonian coast, the other being the ringed seal (Pusa hispida).

There are around 40,000 gray seals in the Baltic Sea.


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Editor: Airika Harrik, Helen Wright

Source: Terevisioon interviewer Juhan Kilumets.

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