The Saimaa Ringed Seal (<em>Pusa hispida saimensis</em>) is represented by a very small population of about 310 seals found only in the Saimaa fragmented freshwater lake complex. This species faces ongoing threats, such as by-catch in fishing gear and virtually complete reproductive failure due to human disturbance and, in recent years, to poor ice conditions caused by the climate change.
The critically endangered Saimaa Ringed Seal gives usually birth towards the end of February, when Lake Saimaa is covered with thick ice and snow offering the perfect nesting spots — snow drifts on the shore of small islets. In recent years, milder winters causing unfavourable nesting conditions have exposed seals pups to higher mortality.
The five-year Saimaa Ringed Seal LIFE Project aims to enhance the protection of the endangered Saimaa Ringed Seal and the reaching of its favourable conservation status. Among the many methods that will be used during the project, one is to facilitate adaptation to climate change by developing a way of producing manmade snow drifts to improve the Saimaa Seal´s reproductive success during mild winters. To support this initiative, studies made by the University of Eastern Finland revealed that the Saimaa Ringed Seal would nest also in man-made snow drifts.
“The artificial snow drifts will be shovelled in places that are known to be ideal nesting sites for the seal”, says Jouni Koskela, Conservation Biologist of Metsähallitus, Natural Heritage Services. The Saimaa Ringed Seal LIFE Project will build up a system of readiness to make artificial snow drifts with the help of volunteer workers, if there is not enough snow. This year, drifts will be made on two of the lakes in the Saimaa area and eventually extended to the whole of the Lake Saimaa water system first thing in February.
“Climate change is one of the biggest threats to the Saimaa Ringed Seal, and a winter with not much snow is a catastrophe. The majority of the Seal pups that are born on the lake ice and without the shelter of a snow nest are threatened and may die already when they are nursing. For a long time, researchers have tried to find ways to help the seal to survive the winters with no snow. Unfortunately, we are now forced to make artificial snow drifts also in a real-life situation”, says Jari Luukkonen, Conservation Director of WWF Finland, IUCN Member and partner in the implentation of this LIFE project.