Caspian seals were bears in their past life

The view of dead seals driven ashore depresses more than the view of dead fish, birds and other inhabitants of the Caspian. Probably, because we and seals – being of one class, nursed by the mother’s milk. The new cases of mass mortality of seals made Caspian News Informative Portal tell their readers about the most highly developed inhabitant of the Caspian waters. Our interlocutor is Dmitriy Glazov, the Deputy Head of Belukha – White Whale Program, an employee of A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Caspian News: Dmitriy Mikhailovich, I will start with a sentimental question. Caspian seals are endangered. When you look at photos or watch videos of these animals, especially of pups, you feel pity as if their life – torment. They, poor fellows, seem to move hardly, and they have such unhappy eyes. Maybe the Caspian seal is a mistake of nature? What is this creature?

Dmitriy Glazov: Of course, we, scientists, are also sentimental. But we prefer to rely on facts. And the facts show that the Caspian seal first lived on land, that is, it is originally secondary aquatic. Seals’ closest living relatives on genetic and morphological characters are considered to be the family Ursidae and family Mustelidae, that is, typical predators. The ancestors of all the true seals were carnivores moving well on land. And then, thanks to prevailing conditions, seals’ ancestors went into the water and eventually adapted to living there.

Unlike the dolphin, the seal cannot exist without land or some other surface. It needs to get out of water to rest, or to give birth and nurse their pups. And then, perhaps, from the human point of view, the seal begins to look unhappy, because it feels better in water and is more active in it.

In an underwater shooting, the seal looks completely different – it feels comfortable in water. But its historical destiny has developed that it cannot be without land. And it is on surface that the main troubles are waiting for the seal, whether it is a tanker or an icebreaker, which is going through the ice field, where there are seal mothers with their pups, whether it is some coast where predators are lurking, or other dangers. So, from the human point of view, the seal is, of course, unhappy, but only partly.

Caspian News: It is ‘woolen’, has fur. Is it comfortable to swim ‘wearing fur clothes’?

Dmitriy Glazov: Certainly, it is uncomfortable. The Caspian seal is the brightest representatives of the true seals. It looks like an inflated fur bag. And in water (as its spine and other bones do not take the load any more, like ours do), the load is distributed due to internal body pressure. This pressure is particularly maintained by the blubber (subcutaneous fat), which protects the seal from hypothermia or overheating – it depends on the environmental conditions. With the skin, it creates such an external bag that most marine mammals have. The status and thickness of the blubber say about the welfare and health of each individual.

Unfortunately, it was fur that was a reason for seal hunting to produce hats, collars and other clothes. Even England is said to buy the fur of seal pups to make caps for guards. But the fur is not basic insulation for the seal. It is also provided by the blubber, which grows in adults due to eating fish, or when seal mothers nurse their pups with milk.

Caspian News: You say ‘seal mothers’, but as far as I know, only 15 percent of seal females can produce offspring now. And they produce offspring on ice, in horrible, in our opinion, conditions. Firstly, why do they do it on ice? Secondly, why is it so small number – only 15 percent?

Dmitriy Glazov: Yes, there is some historical mystery concerning the Caspian seal. Breeding and spending some time on ice is inherent in Arctic species. They like ice coverage. The Caspian is south, temperature is very high in summer, but seals are still here, and despite the vast expanses of land around them, they prefer to give birth on ice. Rather, it has developed historically. There is no single opinion on this issue. There is even a notion that the migration of seals in the Caspian Sea is somehow connected with the movement of cold streams circulating here. Seals feel more comfortable in cold water. You see – the history of their ancestors is influencing the special conditions for breeding today.

Caspian News: Why can they produce offspring so little? Do they have a weakened immune system? What is going on with seals now?

Dmitriy Glazov: I would not say that 15 percent – this is very little…

Caspian News: But they give birth to only one pup.

Dmitriy Glazov: Sometimes two pups are born, but in this case, most often, both of them die, because their seal mother cannot suckle them. Natural selection has formed this. As for the number of seals which can produce offspring, it is connected with their physiological maturation. Because, I say once again, 15 percent of the population – this is little but not critical. A lot of species have smaller percent of individuals able to give birth, it depends on the strategy of breeding, nursing and caring for their offspring, which is inherent in each species. For example, whales give birth once every ten years; consequently, they will have even less percent. They mature later, and their lifespan is longer. During their life, whales give the number of calves comparable with the number that seals, whose life is shorter, give.

Caspian News: But I would like to ask a question. Is the Caspian seal endangered, or is it ecologists who are stirring up passions?

Dmitriy Glazov: None of scientific groups can answer this question. The problem is in the following: in the studying of the Caspian seal, there is some specificity of setting goals, their achievement, and financing. As you know, to perform any scientific task, you need some financing. Firstly, all five Caspian countries have not been united by common concept and programme to study the seal. And then, after we have studied it, we need to protect it, that is, to have a reason for protection. Secondly, the studies, which are being carried out by neighboring countries, particularly by Russia and Kazakhstan, have not been coordinated somehow.

To count seals is seems to be the easiest way. But some dissonance constantly arises between approaches, methods, and conditions in which Kazakh and Russian experts work. One figure is gotten in Russia, and another – in Kazakhstan. Unfortunately, it is impossible to compare these figures, because surveys are carried out by completely different methods. The use of different methods is a problem for science in general, but here this problem does not allow us to solve another – whether the Caspian seal should be inscribed into the Red Book. That is, whether it is time to exclude this animal from the list of harvested species. Reasons for inscribing it into the Red Book of Russia must be strictly justified – the evidence of threats to the species is required: its critical abundance, ability to reproduction, and some other threats to the species. This evident data is still being debated. There is no consensus that would be used as a base for such a decision.

Caspian News: As far as I heard, CaspNIRKh believes that now there are about 300 thousand seals, the international experts say – 100 thousand.

Dmitriy Glazov: The last survey was conducted by CaspNIRKh only in the Russian zone. The representatives of our institute and specialists from St. Petersburg took part in flights. Most of seals, which could have been registered, lay on the Kazakh territory at that time. Accordingly, the numbers, which you have brought, is extrapolation, some mathematic calculation.

Caspian News: But, Dmitry Mikhailovich, I do not want to delve into mathematics, just will make an assumption: perhaps, those who say that there are very little seals just want to get funding for their researches; they want to get grants.

Dmitriy Glazov: Of course, as we have discussed, it is impossible to work without funding, because aerial surveys are quite expensive. When we conducted them here, we overtook a special plane- laboratory from Arkhangelsk. Funding is never enough, but for these studies, there has not been any funding at all. In CaspNIRKh, as far as I know, the Marine Mammal Laboratory has been liquidated; a few experts are working now, who are not provided with finance. And a duty of CaspNIRKh, as a scientific authority of the Federal Agency for Fishery, is to conduct surveys and monitor the status of the Caspian seal population. But there is no funding for it there.

Caspian News: In 2000, when there was mass mortality in the Caspian, and 20 thousand seals died; specialists from the Novosibirsk scientific center of virology and biotechnology “Vector” came to Astrakhan Oblast, trying to find an influenza virus in seals. And as far as I know, they found it. Flu – this is terrible. People die from it. Perhaps, the seals are flu carriers, as well as birds? Maybe someday people will be warned not to approach the islands?

Dmitriy Glazov: Let us not escalate! The situation with flu is as follows. We have worked with specialists from the “Vector” in the Sea of Okhotsk in the Far East. Influenza viruses have a different number of strains. Perhaps, you have heard about the swine flu, avian flu, and so on…and such strains are present in Caspian seals. These mammals cannot be without flu. This is their disease, as well as ours. Consequently, they are a natural reserve of it: if all of a sudden, at the modern evolution of influenza, a strain is formed which is dangerous to humans, it will definitely be a new outbreak of influenza. Therefore, when working with these animals, especially in close contact in rehabilitation centers or zoos, firstly, quarantine is carried out, and, secondly, there are certain rules of contact with animals. If someone suddenly meets a seal, and the seal sneezes, nothing terrible will happen, but if you stay with this animal in a confined space long time, of course, it is needed to take precautions. But it is not necessary to escalate the situation.

Caspian News: You have mentioned rehabilitation centers. Now you are going to create such a center in Dagestan to shelter sick animals. But would the center be a peddler of infections?

Dmitriy Glazov: The objectives of a rehabilitation center are somewhat broader than to care for sick animals. In the world, marine mammal rehabilitation centers are created for different purposes. In case with seals, the goals are mostly feeding, raising and teaching pups, and then releasing them to freedom. That is, roughly speaking, seal mothers leave their pups or seal mothers die and pups become orphaned. The offspring should be rehabilitated, adapted to the natural environment, so that pups would be able to eat fish and move. And then they would be released.

In Russia, the best example – the St. Petersburg rehabilitation center. It was built with financial support of Vodokanal and is being encouraged by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of Russia. Every year, 20 or more animals are rehabilitated in this center. These are Ladoga and Baltic ringed seals, mostly their pups. Because at the time of breeding, sometimes ice with pups is moved by wind into the Neva. Pups lose any contact with their mothers, and it is necessary to take them away and rehabilitate. This year there was a situation when over a hundred animals were moved. The employees of this center were very worried about it, because it was impossible to feed so many animals.

For the Caspian Sea, another problem is more relevant. It is in the following: there are adult animals that are injured by fishing net, and boats. They should be treated, rehabilitated and then released. This is particularly relevant for the Dagestan coast.

We have started the preparatory work on the creation of such a center. Firstly, we need to understand if there are animals that can be rehabilitated. It is meaningless to build a center where they are absent. How they can get into the rehabilitation center – whether fishermen will cooperate with the center giving these animals or we need to collect them on the coast or go to search in the sea. This is the second issue. The third issue – where and how to organize the center, who will fund its establishment and operation. Plus, such rehabilitation centers do not work by themselves; they are engaged in education to convey to people that animals should be humanely treated – not only at the center but also in the natural environment.

We have been to Dagestan; very good specialists are there, our partners. I think there are very good opportunities for the development of this project, now it is at the very first stage.

Caspian News: A pragmatic question. It is clear why it is necessary to save sturgeon species. They are relict fish, contemporary with dinosaurs. Sturgeon – it is delicious, it is a brand in Russia. And is it necessary to protect the seal? Sorry for this hard question.

Dmitriy Glazov: To this question, the following is added: you know, the seals eat our fish, we compete with them…so let us leave them alone – they will die, and we will eat the fish, which they will not have eaten. I would say that it is a non-systemic approach. The systemic approach is that the seals are in the ecosystem – in a single complex, which exists very badly without seals, as the “crown” of this ecosystem. You may remember, a few years ago, the comb jelly Mnemiopsis leidyi, a stranger, or invader, appeared in this conglomerate, in the ecosystem of the Caspian Sea. Before it had appeared in the Caspian Sea, I observed Mnemiopsis leidyi in the Black Sea. It had inflicted enormous damage there – had eaten ‘the middle’ of its ecosystem. The same thing – if we remove the seal from the top of the ecosystem, it turns out that the whole pyramid built by nature will begin to crumble. Therefore, from the biological point of view, the seal is important. It cannot be replaced by anything in the Caspian.

Another point – about fish. People withdraw fish which they eat. They caught it, taking away. And the seal eats fish, leaving all metabolic products here, in the sea. They are included in the same cycle. This is important for the ecosystem; it is phosphorus metabolism, the exchange of organic substances. None doubts that the seal is a key organism at this level.

Caspian News: You work in the Program “Belukha – White Whale”. President Vladimir Putin is known to support this program. Maybe it is necessary to find a status patron for the seal as well? Then the seal would become more understandable for people, and there would be more benefit from your actions?

Dmitriy Glazov: Of course. Firstly, we hope for help from journalists, for help from your portal users who will be able to express their opinion. Secondly, today, in our country, there is a special representative of the President on environmental activities and ecology, as well as the Minister of Natural Resources and Environment of Russia. They would be significant figures to support seal conservation projects. Maybe someone from the Caspian countries’ leaders would also perform a role here. So let us hope that this, as you say, unhappy or happy seal can attract a little bit of attention to itself, can ignite a spark of interest in someone.

Authors: Galina Godunova, Nikolay Telyufanov.
Photo: Vyacheslav Rozhnov.
The source: Caspian News, Russia.



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