On April 4, 2023, Victoria Abramchenko gave a series of instructions on Lake Baikal. One of them concerns the Baikal seal: «Analyze the possible negative effects of increasing the number of Baikal seals and consider the need and mechanisms for regulating the number of Baikal seals by May 25, 2023»
Based on Viktoria Abramchenko’s instructions, three main questions arise:
- Are there any negative consequences from the increase in the Baikal seal population? What are they?
- Is there a need to regulate the number of Baikal seals?
- Do we have any mechanisms that will help up regulate the population of Baikal seals? Are these methods effective? What risks do they hold for the Baikal seal?
In order to learn the opinion of scientists and core specialists on these questions, the Lake Baikal Foundation initiated and held the thematic round table on May 16, 2023 together with the Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Science (IEEP RAS) at the site of the Institute.
The discussion was attended by 23 experts from various organizations familiar with the Baikal seal from different sides:
- research institutes and educational institutions that study the Baikal seal, its behavior, and biology;
- specially protected natural areas – FSBI “Zapovednoe Podlemorye” which monitors and protects Baikal seals on the Ushkany Islands, and FSBI “Baikal State Reserve”;
- FSBSI “All-Russian Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography” and its Baikal and St. Petersburg branches;
- Irkutsk Nerpinarium;
- Baikal Museum;
- the Baikal Research Center.
At the moment the Lake Baikal Foundation is preparing a generalized resolution on the results of the discussion together with the experts that participated in the round-table discussion, but the main conclusions can already be formulated:
1. There is not enough scientific data to speak about the dynamics of the Baikal seal population.
The current number of Baikal seals, as determined by unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) surveys in April-May 2021, is 120,000-140,000 individuals. In order to draw conclusions about the population dynamics of the seals, it is necessary to carry out UAV surveys and comprehensive monitoring of the Lake Baikal ecosystem continuously for several years.
2. There are no negative consequences of an increase in the number of Baikal seals.
The main fears of an increase in the number of Baikal seals are a decrease in the number of Baikal omul and the risk of an epizootic — a wide spread of an infectious disease among this species. However, these fears are unfounded.
The primary cause of the decline in the number of Baikal seals is originally not the seal, but the uncontrolled industrial, poaching, abandoned sunken nets, leading to “phantom fishing”. Altogether all the seals in Baikal eat no more than 10% of the human catch of omul. The share of salmonid fish (including omul) in the diet of the seal is no more than 2%, which the seal eats mostly from fishing nets. The seal feeds on other kinds of fish – holomyanka and gobies. Baikal omul is too fast for Baikal seals, they are not able to catch it in the wild. Besides, indirectly the number of omul is affected by the lowering of the level of the rivers where the spawning takes place. Nevertheless, scientists registered a gradual increase of the omul population.
The emergence of an epizootic can occur with any number of the species. Today, it is common to find reference to the 1988 outbreak of the plague of carnivores, when some 6,000 Baikal seals died. At that time, the number of Baikal seals corresponded to about 135,000 individuals, which is comparable to today’s numbers. But one example of an epizootic cannot be the basis for the recommendation to artificially regulate the number of the animal’s population. The animal world is arranged in such a way that nothing is lost in nature: dead seals are very quickly eaten by bears, gulls and amphipod crustaceans.
3. There is no need to artificially regulate the number of Baikal seals
Without human intervention, the Baikal seal can regulate its population on its own. One of the peculiarities of the Baikal seal is the process of pregnancy: under unfavorable conditions (nutrition, stress, etc.) at the initial stage of development in the female body the embryo can dissolve. In addition, any population is able to adapt to environmental conditions: favorable conditions (plenty of food, lack of stress) lead to an increase in the population, and unfavorable conditions (lack of food, stress, disease, competition, etc.) cause a decrease in numbers.
Any human intervention in an ecosystem is a very complex and unpredictable process that requires a lot of responsibility and additional information – research and constant monitoring of the population’s well-being. Often the opposite effect happens – once the decrease in population numbers happens after industrial hunting, a sharp increase in the food base happens as a consequence. If a small population has a lot of food, the reproduction levels skyrocket, and we can see a huge increase in the population compared to the original level. After this happens, we can no longer leave the population as it is — now it needs constant regulation.
4. There is no need to introduce industrial hunting of Baikal seals
At the level of legislation there are quotas for the extraction of Baikal seals for indigenous peoples, but the extraction is carried out in the amount of 30-40% of the quota size. There is not much demand for Baikal seal products (pelt, fat, meat).
There is no infrastructure for the further processing of the carcasses for useful purposes.
“Nature knows best” says one of the laws of nature, formulated by Barry Commoner back in the 1980s. Any intervention in nature requires justification of the purpose, a preliminary, thorough and comprehensive study of the issue, long-term and systematic observation and accounting of the number of animals.
At the moment there is no need, no readiness and no sufficient scientific data to introduce new mechanisms for artificially regulating the number of Baikal seals.
Moreover – some experts are happy that the number of Baikal seals, a symbol of Baikal, is increasing because it gives an opportunity to develop organized ecological tourism: you can watch the animal in its natural habitat on the Ushkany Islands of the Zabaikalsky National Park.
Baikal seal is a commercially harvested animal in the Russian Federation, but there is no commercial hunting of it since 2007 when the expert commission of the State ecological expertise disagreed with the Materials of Substantiation of TAC (total allowable catches) of 3500 specimens and recommended introduction of a temporary ban on its hunting.
Later the commercial catch of seal was prohibited by the fishing rules for Baikal fish basin (Order of the Federal Agency for Fishery № 283, 2009).
In the latest edition of the rules, the moratorium on commercial catch is preserved.
The withdrawal of the species is permitted only for the traditional fishing of indigenous peoples as well as for research purposes. The catch quotas are preserved and are established annually for indigenous peoples and for research purposes.
In 2023, 30 seals in the Irkutsk region and 300 seals in the Republic of Buryatia are allowed to be harvested for scientific purposes.
For the indigenous people, 2,600 seals are allowed to be harvested in Buryatia (Order No. 705 of the Federal Fishery Agency of December 5, 2022).
Total: 2,930 seals per year.