Saimaa, the largest lake in Finland, experienced a lack of snow yet again during the past winter.
The consequences could have been disastrous for the lake’s famous but scarce population of Saimaa ringed seal (Pusa hispida saimensis).
Dozens of snow pushers are moving around the ice covering lake Saimaa on a cold February day.
The life of a Saimaa ringed seal depends on snow and ice, as it gives birth to its pups in a cave-like nest it builds out of snow.
Because there is not enough snow, volunteers working with WWF and Metsähallitus (Parks and Wildlife Finland) are here to build man-made snowbanks.
Without shelter, half of the seal pups are in danger of losing their lives to predators or the cold.
The life of every single pup matters, as the Saimaa ringed seal is extremely endangered.
This was not the case 100 years ago when the seal population in the Saimaa waters totalled nearly 1,000. The seal was considered an enemy of fishery, and in the course of just one century, it was hunted close to extinction.
Until the year 1948, you could even earn money as a reward for killing one. It is now illegal to hunt for the Saimaa ringed seals.
By the 1980s, less than 120 seals survived.
What is the Saimaa ringed seal doing in such a hostile environment?
The seal was isolated some 8,000 years ago when the connection between the Saimaa waterway and the Baltic Sea was broken at the end of the ice age.
The seal adapted to the murky, labyrinthine waters of Saimaa.
Today, it is one of the few species of freshwater seals, only encountered here.
If the Saimaa ringed seal disappears, the species will be gone from the entire world.
However, we are still hopeful.
The number of seals has increased steadily since 1979, when we established a seal conservation group.
Nowadays, the population comprises 360 individuals.
The man-made snowbanks seem to be working, as 90 per cent of this year’s pups were born inside one.
The total number of seal pups born was 82, which set a new record.
However, climate change is not the only threat the Saimaa ringed seal has to face: they also have to survive net fishing.
Drowning in fishing nets is the most common cause of death for seal pups.
Net fishing is prohibited in the habitat of the Saimaa ringed seal from mid-April to the end of June. But from early July on, the seal pups are again in danger of drowning in the nets.
The official number of dead seal pups found in fishing nets last summer was two.
In reality, many deaths remain a secret – that is how ashamed people are when they discover a dead seal in their fishing nets.
In a way, the shame brings hope: the hostile attitudes towards the Saimaa ringed seal are changing.
The change in attitudes is largely thanks to Pullervo, the world’s most famous Saimaa ringed seal that has charmed all of Finland by spending hours lazing in front of the live camera we installed at Saimaa.
This year, the live stream was viewed over three million times.
The objective of the live stream was to make people more aware of the Saimaa ringed seal. When people know more about it, they may be more willing to give up net fishing.
The Saimaa ringed seal will still need protection for a long time to come.
If we don’t tackle climate change, the seal will no longer have a suitable living environment.
We support the University of Eastern Finland in their research to discover new methods for the conservation and monitoring of the seal.
This was where the idea of the man-made snowbanks originated.
Now, the focus of the study is to find out what can be done if the snow cover at Saimaa is no longer thick enough for snowbanks. Could we use snow cannons or other means to create artificial snow?
It seems likely that at some point lake Saimaa will simply not freeze over any more. The plans and testing of other artificial nests must already be started.
We must also be ready to ask the question of how much humans can actually help.
For now, we will do everything we can.