Saimaa ringed seal
by Marja-Liisa Karjalainen, journalist at Savonlinna
Photos: Timo Seppäläinen
The Saimaa ringed seal (Phoca hispida saimensis) is a subspecies of the ringed
seal and exists only in the Saimaa lake system of eastern Finland. It is an
endangered mammal, under WWF protection, with only 270 individuals remaining
in the wild. But resolute conservation work over the past few years is
beginning to pay off at last and the seal population has actually grown
Photo: Timo Seppäläinen
The Saimaa ringed seal is an endangered species, unique to Lake Saimaa in Finland.
The female seal gives birth to a single pup in February. The pups are counted every
year so that the population can be monitored. The mother seal lies on the ice while
her pup practices diving in the open water nearby.
It has been estimated that the immediate threat of extinction would be
alleviated if the population of Saimaa seals could be brought up to 400
individuals. At present, Saimaa ringed seals are found in special national
parks that have been set up at Linnansaari and Kolovesi in Lake Saimaa. The
seals also breed in other Natura 2000 nature conservation areas of the Saimaa
water system, such as lake Pihlajavesi.
Raising the young
Seal lairs are located under thick snowdrifts on the ice near the shoreline rocks
of the lakes. The female seal hollows out a shelter for herself in the snow.
In the floor of the shelter she makes a hole in the ice through which she can
slip into the lake water below. The seal pups are born at the end of February
or in early March. The newborn seals are covered in grey fur, known also as
lanugo, and spend the first few weeks of their lives secure in their lairs,
feeding on the nutritious fatty milk of their mothers.
A typical seal lair on a small rock, after the seal and its pup have left. If
the weather turns mild or it begins to rain, the roof of the lair can easily
collapse. If that happens, the seal has to make a new lair, usually near the
When they have grown a little, the time has come to learn to swim and dive and
explore the nearby waters. “The seal pup spends the first few months of
its life with its mother, from February until the summer. Then the mother weans
the pup,” explains conservation biologist Jouni Koskela at Metsähallitus,
the Finnish Forest and Park Service. On sunny spring days, the seal pup and its
mother enjoy basking in the sun on the ice. If the weather is windy, they stay
in their lair, sheltered by the snow.
Good breeding conditions
The count of lairs with seal pups in them has just been completed this year, and
as many as 64 pups were found. The number of pups is a record in the history of
censuses carried out since 1981. The breeding conditions this spring were
excellent for the Saimaa ringed seal. “The Saimaa ringed seal digs its lair
deep in a snowdrift, so in order for the seals to breed successfully, sufficient
snow is essential. This year, we had a lot of snow,” says Koskela.
Matti Heikkinen collects from the lair a sample of the baby fur shed by a seal
pup. Newborn seal pups have grey fur, but they soon shed it and grow a new darker
coat. The number of seal pups is deduced on the basis of lairs because seals and
their pups are very difficult to spot in the wild. There is always only one seal
pup to a lair. The moulted grey fur is the surest sign that a pup was born in
this particular lair.
For the durability of the lair the air temperature is also crucial; it should
stay cold enough while the seals are in their lair so that the snow does not melt
and cause the roof to collapse. “There was a mild period in March when the
roofs of some lairs did collapse. But by then I doubt if it was very serious for
the pups,” Koskela says.
Water level fluctuation
Another important factor is the water level of the lake. As already mentioned,
the Saimaa ringed seal makes its lair on the ice quite close to the shore and
makes a hole in the ice in the floor of the lair so that it can slide into the
water. Fluctuations in the water level of Lake Saimaa create problems for a mother
seal feeding her pup in the lair. If the water level drops too much, the result
could be a crack in the ice that would destroy the lair. Or, if the water rises
too much, the lair will flood. “This winter, the water level has stayed
pretty stable,” Koskela says.
Up to the 1980s regulatory adjustments lowered the water level in Lake Saimaa
during several winters. Today, the breeding habits of the ringed seal are taken
into account when water level adjustments are being planned.
Volunteers count lairs
Fifty to sixty seal pups are born on Lake Saimaa every year. Many people who
live along the shore or have holiday cabins there volunteer each spring to help
the national Forest and Park Service, searching many parts of the lake counting
lairs where seal pups have been born. This produces valuable information on the
breeding success, population trends and life of the Saimaa ringed seal in
One of the volunteers is Matti Heikkinen. He returns to his old hometown of
Savonlinna every spring to take part in the lair count. Heikkinen and his cousin
Pertti Kinnunen, who still lives by Lake Saimaa, have both been active lair
count volunteers for years. “The survival of the Saimaa ringed seal is
important to me. I’m very worried about its future. Sometimes I wonder if
the Saimaa seal has any chance at all of avoiding extinction, as the population
has been so depleted. But I still hope for the best, and we are certainly doing
everything we can to make sure the seals will be swimming around here in years
to come,” Heikkinen says.
There are certain precautions to be taken by anyone intending to venture on to
lake ice. One spring, While Matti Heikkinen was out counting lairs, an icebreaker
crossed the lake behind him, opening a channel through the ice and cutting off his
return route. Luckily, he had foreseen that this might happen and brought a boat
with him. He placed his skis and rucksack in the boat and rowed back over the open
Every lair count volunteer has an assigned area, which they explore with the help
of a few others. A total of more than 50 people, half of them volunteers, count the
pups around the lake system. Heikkinen, Kinnunen and two other volunteers have
about 100 kilometres of shoreline to explore every spring. “In the best years,
we’ve found five seal pups along that stretch. In 2003, there was only one.
This year, there are three lairs with pups in our area,” Pertti Kinnunen
The volunteers usually explore their assigned areas on skis, regarded as the best
way of making nature observations. Snowmobiles, hovercraft and hydrocopters are
also used to some extent. The volunteers move around the islands in the lake in
spring when the seal pups have already grown big enough to leave their lairs. In
this way the volunteers can be sure not to disturb the lairs and the mothers feeding
“The most important task of the volunteers is to look for lairs where seal
pups have been born that spring. The surest sign that a pup has been born in a
particular lair is the pup's grey fur, or natal hair. There is usually a lot of it
in a lair where a pup has been born, because the pup sheds it and then grows a new
dark coat while still in the lair,” Koskela explains.
The reason why the new pups and their mothers are counted on the basis of the
lairs found is that both the mother seals and pups are very hard to observe on the
lake in winter, when visibility is often not good. The volunteers are also asked to
collect samples of the seal pups’ natal hair for analysis. It is tested for
heavy metal content, for instance, and DNA samples are taken for future examination.
The volunteers report all their observations in detail to the experts of the Forest
and Park Service.
All in all, the volunteers do very valuable work for the conservation of the Saimaa
ringed seal. They are not paid for their help, only their travelling expenses are
reimbursed. They sign an agreement with the Forest and Park Service which includes
insurance cover for the volunteers themselves during their journeys in search of
lairs. The Service also lends the volunteers buoyant survival suits, which are
essential apparel since they will be moving over the lake in spring, when the ice can
be dangerously unpredictable and weak.
If all the seal pups born each spring were to survive, the population of Saimaa
ringed seals would gradually grow. The problem is that some 10 to 20 of the pups
born each year die as a result of getting stuck in fishing nets. The seals are
protected by restrictions on land use and fishing near their breeding grounds.
Holiday cabins or permanent homes cannot be built along the shoreline next to the
seals’ breeding grounds. Fishing is also restricted in certain areas through
voluntary agreements with fishermen.
Conservation biologist Jouni Koskela of the national Forest and Park Service
pictured at a seal lair. The lairs are counted in the spring just before the ice
melts, as soon as the seal pups are big enough to have left the location. The lairs
are counted by volunteers who help with crucial conservation work in this way.
“This year again the use of fishing tackle which could pose a danger to seal
pups is prohibited over an area of 400 square kilometres of Lake Saimaa. In practice,
this means that the use of any kind of net is forbidden in the area during the critical
season for pups, from mid-April to the end of June,” says Jouni Koskela. The
Forest and Park Service pays compensation to fishermen for the catches they lose due
to measures to protect the Saimaa ringed seal.
About 60% of the seal pups are born within the fishing restriction areas. But that
leaves many others that are born in areas where people can fish freely. This puts the
seal pups in very grave danger as they frolic about in the water during the first few
months of their lives. Seal pups under the age of four months can easily get tangled
up in fishing nets.
Active information campaigns have proved to be of great significance in helping to
protect the Saimaa ringed seal. “Positive attitudes to the protection of the
Saimaa ringed seal have clearly increased over the past years. People who have
holiday cabins as well as permanent residents in the area want the seals to continue
living on their shores.”