Caspian seals (Pusa caspica) live only in the Caspian Sea — located at the junction of Europe and Asia, the largest landlocked waterbody in the world. Caspian seals have been listed as Endangered since 2008 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), having declined by more than 70 % in the 20th Century, primarily as a result of unsustainable hunting for their fur and blubber.
Today, the IUCN Task Force on Marine Mammal Protected Areas, a joint task force of the IUCN Species Survival Commission and the World Commission on Protected Areas, announces that Caspian seals have been awarded three Important Marine Mammal Areas, or IMMAs, as part of a tranche of 14 new IMMAs for the marine mammals of the Black Sea, Turkish Straits and Caspian Sea.
“This is welcome news,” says Dr. Simon Goodman, an ecologist based at the University of Leeds UK, and member of IUCN’s specialist group that focuses on seals and other pinnipeds. “Currently the main threats for Caspian seals stem from human activities, including very high rates of seal mortality in fishing gear set for sturgeon poaching, and habitat degradation arising from coastal development. Additional concerns for the coming decades are reductions in the winter sea ice the seals use for breeding, and a decline in the Caspian Sea level, which are predicted to occur due to climate heating.”
The newly identified Caspian Sea IMMAs are not protected areas, but they represent what experts say are essential habitat for the future of the Caspian seal.
At present, there are no special protected areas for the conservation of Caspian seals that prohibit all forms of economic or industrial activity. It is hoped that the IMMA initiative will stimulate the development of stronger protection for key Caspian seal habitat, including the winter breeding ice, migration routes and foraging areas, and sites used by animals to haul out on land for resting and moulting. Increasing levels of disturbance have caused Caspian seals to abandon most of their traditional haul out sites, while offshore habitats are sensitive to industrial development. Now, large aggregations of the animals are rarely seen.
The Caspian seal was added to the Red Book of Russia and the List of Rare and Endangered Species of Plants and Animals of Kazakhstan in 2020, making it Red Listed in all five Caspian countries. Following a proposal initiated by the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Caspian seal was added to Appendices I and II of the United Nations Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals in 2017.
Nataliya Shumeyko, from A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, and IMMA Regional Coordinator for the Caspian Sea commented: “While the legislative protections are welcome, investment is still needed to fund active conservation measures to reduce seal mortality and protect these habitats. We all have to do more for this endangered species.”
Background and Notes
• On September 30, 2021, The Plan of Joint Actions of Russia and Kazakhstan for 2021–2026 to Protect the Caspian Seal Population as Part of the Implementation Agreement Between the Government of the Russian Federation and the Government of the Republic of Kazakhstan on Cooperation in the Field of Environmental Protection was signed at XVII Forum of Interregional Cooperation between Kazakhstan and Russia. President of Kazkhstan. The importance of protecting this animal was noted by President Vladimir Putin and President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev suggested creating state nature reserves for the Caspian seal in the Northern Caspian (learn more).
• The Caspian Sea, with a surface area of 143,000 sq. miles (371,000 sq. km), is the largest landlocked waterbody in the world (slightly larger than the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park). It is bordered by 5 countries: the Republic of Azerbaijan, the Russian Federation, the Republic of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
• Caspian seals (Pusa capsica) measure up to 4 feet 7 inches long (140 cm). Pups are born in mid-January to late February on the ice and weigh about 11 pounds (5 kg). They nurse for 4-5 weeks before entering the water. Caspian seals feed on a variety of fish, especially the Common kilka (Clupeonella cultriventris caspia).
• The three Caspian Sea IMMAs are: (1) Caspian Seal Breeding Area IMMA (learn more); (2) Caspian Seal Moulting and Haul Out Areas IMMA (learn more); and (3) Caspian Seal Transitory Migration and Feeding Area IMMA (learn more). In total, the Black Sea, Turkish Straits System and Caspian Sea IMMA regional workshop resulted in 14 IMMAs, one candidate IMMA (cIMMA) and 11 areas of interest (AoI).
• IMMAs are not protected areas but they are intended to assist with national and global programmes to help countries select high biodiversity areas to fulfil the targets of 30 percent protection by 2030 (“30 by 30”) as supported by many international bodies and more than 100 countries around the world.
• The Final report of the Seventh IMMA Workshop: Important Marine Mammal Area Regional Workshop for the Black Sea, Turkish Straits System and Caspian Sea from the IUCN Marine Mammal Protected Areas Task Force is available for download from the IMMA website, along with maps and IMMA background data here.
• The IMMA e-Atlas showing the global network of IMMAs and a searchable database can be found here.