Save the Caspian seal

This summer, the employees of the Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology (Irgely, Kazakhstan) filmed the third documentary “Save the Caspian seal”. It is in Russian only, but worth watching everyone. Please, read its off-screen text created by Mirgaliy T. Baymukanov, PhD, the Director of the institute, Head of  the research group, Screenwriter, and Director of films about the Caspian seal (you can also watch another documentary – “History of the Caspian seal. Commercial hunting and researches”, with off-screen text translated in English, here).

At the junction of Europe and Asia there is a lake. 130 rivers flow into it, but none flow out. It extends for more than a thousand kilometers from North to South and for two hundred to more than four hundred kilometers from West to East. This is the largest lake in the world. It is called «the sea», due to its huge size, and also due to the fact that its bottom is a seabed. Its geological history started from the ancient Tethys Ocean. Several million years ago, it separated from the ocean, but still has brackish water. This is the Caspian Sea.

The surprising feature of this sea is its level instability. Its east coast still has terraces and chalky mountains – original records of its former shores. Over the last 10,000 years, the sea level differences made up 200 meters: from 150 meters below and 50 meters above the level of the World Ocean.

The life of the protagonist of our films – the Caspian seal – is highly dependent on the phenomenal properties of the Caspian.

Until now, the origin of the Caspian seal remains unclear. It may be a descendant of those seals that lived during the existence of the large, so-called the Pontic Sea, which at times had connections with the ocean. After the division of this sea and the formation of the Caspian Sea, the seal remained isolated. According to this hypothesis, the evolution of this sea animal dates back 6 to 20 million years. Another version suggests the seals appeared in the Caspian Sea much later – during the periods of regular transgression, i.e. sea level rising, and came from the Arctic Ocean by river systems. The period of its evolution in the Caspian Sea is much less then several hundred thousand to 2 million years. But whatever the origin, it has adapted well to the sea level fluctuations, to its small and large area and has lived to our times.

In the Caspian Sea, the species acquired its specific features peculiar only to it, and became endemic – the Caspian seal!

One of its surprising adaptations was breeding on ice in the northern part of the Caspian Sea. Here, from the end of January till the middle of February, pups are born. The seal is the only marine mammal in the Caspian. Feeding lots of fish species, it had no competitors. The species had been flourishing until it became an attractive commercial object. Sealing was conducted at the places of mass concentrations Caspian seals during their breeding, moulting and migration. Reduction in the number of animals led to the fact that the seal slaughter was increasingly shifted to the ice season. Moreover, the fur of newborn pups was of high value. And so, due to unreasonable hunting on seals for the last 150-200 years, the species has become endangered.

Now, it is difficult to find seal haul-out sites on the vast icefields.

The snow is creaking and sparkling. The pups are not hiding in ice hummocks. And icy cold silence strikes worry amplified by an optical halo effect.

And there is still much to worry about. Having discovered on the shelf of the Northern Caspian, the largest oil and gas deposits are being developed. This involves lots of production islands construction; therefore a year-round shipping traffic is open to them.

So, ice – the basis for seal breeding – is being damaged by icebreakers. And this is a disaster for haul-outs located on their way. And the current law, binding to pass assemblies of seals on the ice at a distance of one mile, does not help; and the observers on icebreakers cannot always notice seals in time; and an icebreaker cannot always stop and turn aside. Female seals lose their pups, and pups often die under ships. And survived but abandoned pups will have a difficult life – without their mothers’ milk, they will be weak, vulnerable to diseases, slowly growing.

The winter, a period of breeding and moulting for seals, passes in turbulence.

There is an entire archipelago in the Caspian Sea – a few islands near the Mangyshlakskiy Bay, which is named the Tyulen’i Islands Archipelago (the Seals’ Islands Archipelago). It was called so, since it was once inhabited by seals. Hundreds of thousands of these animals found their refuge there in spring and autumn. In spring, they came to continue moulting, which was not completed on the ice, in autumn – to rest during their migration period. It was back in those days when the first Russian explorers were discovering and describing the Caspian Sea in the early 18th century, but already in the middle of the 19th century, the number of seals on the Tyulen’i Islands Archipelago reduced more and more due to the merciless hunting. Now they are very rare there. You can find seal skeletons more often than alive animals.

The largest island of the archipelago is Kulaly Island, as translated from the Kyrgyz – the “ear”, which it does resemble by form. The oval side of the island is facing the sea, protecting the islands located to east of it from blowing winds and raging waves. The shallow water between the islands of the archipelago reaches no more than 1-1.5 meters in the deepest places. The bays and channels are full of swimming fish. And between the islands, there is a kingdom of swans, ducks and other birds. The islands have many sandy beaches convenient for seal haul-out sites.

But why aren’t seals visiting the Tyulen’i Islands Archipelago located on their migrations routes? Intensive shipping traffic and fishing are powerful disturbance factors, and seals seek for a more calm refuge.

And they find shelter on the Durneva Islands in the Komsomolets Bay, far from settlements and waterways. This bay once extended to the east, merging into the big bays: MyortvyyKultuk and Kaydak. But as a result of regressions, i.e. fall in the sea level, these bays have been separated and dried up. The growing regression leads to the fact that the Komsomolets Bay gradually becomes shallow and dries up also. In 2011 the largest of the Durneva Islands had haul-out sites with up to 30 thousand moulting seals in springtime, now the island is surrounded by many kilometers of shallow waters of less than half a meter in deep.

During the period of the strong east wind blowing from the shore, the water level drops, and large bottom areas around the islands becomes bare. Seals cannot swim up here. The periodic rising of water level does not improve the situation. Having formed, the extending shallow waters are serious obstacles for seals to pass.

Every year, the territory for seal rookeries on the nearby islands reduces more and more.

The eastern winds often form salt storms, bringing fine salt from dried up bays. At calm, the salt is being in the air in the form of a dense fog, covering everything around, plants and soil, with a thin white layer. You feel anxious.

We found seal rookeries at the northern extremity of the bay, near the islands, where water depth is more – up to 1.5 meters, – and the wind is not yet able to surge water off this area. But it has also only few conditions for spring rookeries – approaches to favorable sand banks are progressively shallowing, leaving less and less free space for moulting seals.

In autumn, the constant wind of the Siberian anticyclone surges the water off for long; and the exposed bottom of the bay shows many traces of wolves searching for food, and crows pecking up the remains of dead seals.

There are a few islands named the Zyuydvestovye Shalygi Islands (the Southwestern Islands) in the pre-estuary space of the Ural River. They were formed relatively recently, about 100 years ago, in the 1920-1930s, and at present they have ceased to be sand banks. The island formation process continues even nowadays. In winter, ice hummocks drag the shallow water ground to the islands, and the area of the islands gradually increases year by year, which is facilitated by shallowing of the Caspian Sea. Bare sandy-shell beaches are formed. “These places have an incredible number of seals, despite of their unregulated slaughter conducted secretly and everywhere,” as described in the late 19th century by Georgiy Sylych Karelin, a Russian natural scientist. And just a few decades ago, seals used to be on them, and on the Peshnoy Island located near the mouth of the Urals. This island has joined the mainland to form a peninsula due to the sea level reduction. There are also huge sandy spaces for seal rookeries there.

Now the coast of the Peshnoy Peninsula and the Zyuydvestovye Shalygi Islands are deserted. They look sinister, covered with corpses of cormorants. Somewhere in the distance, among the waves, you can see solitary seals. But it is dangerous for them to swim up to the shallow waters, where numerous sturgeon fishing nets and poaching hooks are set. Seals often die in them. Numerous small fishes on littoral become meal for seagulls, white-tailed eagles, and other fish-eating birds.

In the Middle Caspian, hundreds of kilometers to the south of these islands, there are small islets near the Kendirli Spit. It is here that the seals haul out in spring and autumn. Besides, in summer they often lie on the beach, warmed by the sun and gentle breeze.

Unlike the islands of the northern part of the Caspian Sea, the Kendirli rookery is not affected by wind-indicated sea level fluctuations, since it is located in the deep water zone. The western islands near the Kendirli Cape have deep adjacent waters (up to 5-meter in deep). So, in case of danger, seals can quickly leave the coast, going underwater. And the danger at this rookery comes only from human. Hunters and fishermen, holidaymakers on motor boats often cruise around in the bay, certainly passing by the rookery with lying animals. Being frightened, the animals rush into the water. But this is not all. People go ashore, some of them attack the remaining seals with sticks, and others shoot these animals. And in the fishing nets set near to the rookery, the seals are often entangled. And here, having wounded and injured, they are lying near each other. It is noticed that healthy seals do not abandon the sick and entangled ones, supporting them and empathizing with them until the last.

The number of seals at the Kendirli rookery is reducing. Despite the fact that island rookeries are not permanent and are used only from time to time, they are also important for moulting and resting of Caspian seals in the period of their migrations. Therefore, it is important to create specially protected areas in the places of rookeries and adjacent water areas to maintain habitats of the seal population. The Kendirli rookery is currently in greatest danger. In addition to direct impact, a tourist base is being constructed nearby; even the construction of Kendirli-City is planned. Without appropriate protected regime, the rookery will exist. At the same time, seals are an excellent object for eco-tourism provided that strict observance rules are followed. Eco-tourism may serve as an alternative activity near rookeries, instead of fishing and hunting. In this case, the preservation of Caspian seals will be useful from the economic point of view.

In order to reduce and provide strict managing of the growing impact of shipping traffic, oil operations and fishing on seal assemblies in the open sea, special rules and regulations shall be in effect.

This film does not address the problem of pollution of the Caspian Sea and its effect on the seal organism, but the sad result of all negative anthropogenic factors is mortality. Mass mortality of tens of thousands of individuals occurred in the late 20th – early 21st century. Scientists recognized that it was caused by a canine distemper virus against the weakened immune system of animals affected by toxic agents. Since then periodically in the spring time corpses of hundreds of seals are found on the coast of the Caspian Sea.

The Caspian seal population is currently in such a state that each individual has a value for further reproduction. In 2008, the species was redlisted by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as Engaged. In Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, it is also inscribed into the national Red Data Books. Caspian Seal Research and Rehabilitation Center operates in Iran, where specialists are working to restore the health of ill or injured animals to release them back to the sea. A similar center is planned to be organized in the Russia, and a special website for Caspian seals conservation has been created. In Kazakhstan, sealing has been prohibited since 2006; and in the fight against fish poaching, alive seals, entangled in fishing nets, are rescued and released back to the nature. It was proposed that specially protected areas should be established around seal rookeries, and a rehabilitation center also.

But these conservation efforts are not enough. To save the Caspian seal, joint and coordinated actions of all the Caspian states are required.

Time is running out. And time is not in favor of Caspian seals, gullible, intelligent, curious animals that have become rare inhabitants of the Caspian Sea.

Author: Mirgaliy Baimukanov, the Director of the Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology (Irgely, Kazakhstan)



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