Joint Research on the Caspian seal in Kazakhstan

On September 20-23, the All-Russian Conference “Marine Biology in the 21st Century: Systematics, Genetics, Ecology of Marine Organisms” dedicated to the memory of Academician O.G. Kusakin was held in Vladivostok. More than 200 specialists from Russia, Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan took part in the conference. At the event, 2 reports focused on the Caspian seal research and conservation were presented: Russian-Kazakhstani Cooperation on the Biological Diversity Conservation (speaker V.A. Skolskiy); Abundance and Status of the Caspian Seal Population in 2019-2022 (speakers S.T. Yerbulekov, F.V. Klimov; co-speakers U.E. Zhanaisov, V.A. Skolskiy, E.V. Murova).

Russian-Kazakhstani Cooperation on the Biological Diversity Conservation (speaker V.A. Skolskiy)

Vasiliy A. Skolskiy, General Director of the Kazakhstan Agency of Applied Ecology LLP (KAAE), noted in his report that the active unification of the efforts of Kazakhstan and Russia in the field of scientific research of the Caspian seal, conducted in the North Caspian, began in 2019. For specialists of the Caspian Region, the seal is an indicator of the sea ecosystem state, and therefore it is important that oil companies have joined the study of this species.

North Caspian Operating Company N.V. (NCOC N.V.), with the support of the Fisheries Committee of the Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources of the Republic of Kazakhstan, initiated the development and funding of two international seal research programmes throughout the Northern Caspian.

The Programme for Assessing the Abundance and Distribution and Natural Reproduction of the Caspian Seal Population in the Kazakhstani and Russian Waters of the Northern Caspian in 2020-2024 was approved at the government levels (the Russian executor is VNIRO and the Kazakhstani executor is KAAE). As part of this program, 3 integrated instrumental surveys have already been carried out to assess the Caspian seal abundance in the northern part of the sea (2020-2022). “The Northern Caspian is a maternity home for the Caspian seal. Here pups are born and begin to take their “first steps”, therefore it is extremely important that we have be able to combine the scientific potential of VNIRO and the technical capabilities of KAAE and begun to conduct significant research throughout the North Caspian and received reliable data on the Caspian seal population abundance,” said Skolskiy V.A.

Scientific work on biology, demographic status and well-being of the Caspian seal population is carried out by KAAE and the Institute of Ecology and Evolution Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IEE RAS) under the Caspian Seal Research Programme in the Waters of the Northern Caspian (2019-2023), which is the second Kazakhstani-Russian programme approved and funded by NCOC N.V.  The scientific work has been carried out jointly by the two countries for the first time.

The adoption of these two programmes determines the wide potential for the implementation of joint activities, confirms the need for further development of fruitful cooperation and solving current cross-border issues.

As part of the implementation of the seal programmes, V.A. Skolsky recommended: to continue joint multispectral aerial surveys of the abundance and distribution of the species in the winter-spring period throughout the Northern Caspian; to study the Caspian seal migration routes, biology and basic demographic parameters; to form a unified regulatory and methodological research base and a unified database on seals.

At the end of his speech, Vasiliy Alekseevich once again noted the important role of NCOC N.V., the only oil and gas company in the Caspian, which is initiating, financing and developing Russian-Kazakhstani cooperation in the field of studying the Caspian seal at present.V.A. Skolskiy suggested: to call on other organizations developing oil and gas resources on the Caspian Sea shelf to be more actively involved in the implementation of scientific tasks by financing them; to intensify the role of the Federal State Budgetary Institution “VNII Ecology”, responsible for the Russian red-listed species, in the formation of a unified database on the Red Data Book flora and fauna of the Caspian Sea, uniform methodological and other regulations for natural environment study and environmental monitoring, in search for budget funds, in particular for the implementation seal research programmes in the Caspian Sea.

It is necessary to develop joint Kazakhstani-Russian research on other topical issues, especially on the state of the sturgeon species populations, some of which are protected. Only joint research can provide complete, reliable information for understanding the situation and taking measures to conserve such an important biological resource.

“By joint efforts, we can save the unique flora and fauna of our planet for us and our descendants,” V.A. Skolskiy addressed the conference participants in the conclusion of the report. “It is necessary to understand that natural resources are not inexhaustible and any impact on them can lead to irreversible degradation. Our task is to prevent this. The study of the state of the natural environment and biological resources is the first and very important step on this way. Let’s remember the responsibility of each of us for the preservation of the natural environment.”

Participants in the All-Russian Conference "Marine Biology in the 21st Century: Systematics, Genetics, Ecology of Marine Organisms", dedicated to the memory of Academician O.G. Kusakin, September 20-23, 2022, Vladivostok, Russia.

Abundance and Status of the Caspian Seal Population in 2019-2022 (speakers S.T. Yerbulekov, F.V. Klimov; co-speakers U.E. Zhanaisov, V.A. Skolskiy, E.V. Murova)

At the beginning of the joint report, Sagiden T. Yerbulekov, Impact Monitoring & Biodiversity Team Lead of Environmental Protection Department, Head of Environmental Marine and Terrestrial Research, as well as Biological Diversity Research at NCOC N.V., Ph.D. (Biology), spoke about the production and environmental work of the company: “The international company NCOC N.V. is engaged in the development of offshore hydrocarbon deposits in Kazakhstan, including the giant Kashagan field in the northeastern part of the Caspian Sea. The project is being implemented within the framework of the North Caspian Sea Production Sharing Agreement (NCSPSA). NCOC N.V. acts as a single project operator on behalf of the consortium of 7 major energy companies: Kazakhstani KazMunayGaz, Italian Eni, British-Netherlandish Shell, French TotalEnergies, American ExxonMobil, Japanese INPEX and Chinese CNPC. Commercial oil production at the Kashagan field and its processing began in 2016. Oil (as long as it is “light”) has a high content of hydrogen sulfide (up to 16%) and mercaptans. In addition to Kashagan, located 80 km from Atyrau, NCOC N.V. is developing 2 deposits in the Northern Caspian – Kairan and Aktote.

As Sagiden T. Yerbulekov noted in his speech, due to the low level of mineralization, which is caused by the influx of fresh water from the Volga and Ural rivers, due to shallow water (3-4 m) and subtropical climate, the Northern Caspian is annually covered with ice for 5 months. This part of the sea is characterised by a high species biological diversity. Representatives of unique fauna and flora live in the north of the Caspian Sea. The mission of NCOC N.V. is to preserve biological diversity and minimize the impact of production activities on unique nature.

Being headed by S.T. Yerbulekov, Impact Monitoring & Biodiversity Team carries out numerous studies of biota (phyto-zooplankton, macrozoobenthos), studies the ichthyofauna, physico-chemical parameters and the composition of bottom sediments and sea water, monitors the quality of atmospheric air, avifauna (the main bird migration routes lie in the northern part of the sea) and, of course, pays a lot of attention to the researches of the Caspian seal, actively supporting them.

Continuing this report, Fyodor V. Klimov, Executive Director of KAAE, Head of Field and Cameral Scientific Researches, spoke in detail about the study of the only marine mammal in the Caspian Sea, carried out according to the programmes mentioned by Skolsky V.A. In addition to KAAE, participants in NCOC N.V.’s programs are the Fisheries Committee of the MEGNR RK, the Scientific and Practical Center for Microbiology and Virology from the Kazakhstani side and Russian scientific institutions: IEE RAS, Russian Federal Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography, Astrakhanskiy State Nature Biosphere Reserve, Astrakhanskiy State Technical University, Effective Cooperation Between Enterprises of the Aerospace Sector, the Institute of Biology of Inland Waters named after I.D. Papanin RAS, Typhoon Scientific and Production Association, Federal Research Center for Fundamental and Translational Medicine, and the All-Russian Research Institute for Environmental Protection (VNII Ecology) at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation. The main directions are to study the Caspian seal status, foraging base, the status of seal habitats, the definition of prospects and actions to preserve the Caspian seal population and its habitat.

“In order to implement this project,” F.V. Klimov noted, “we install satellite transmitters on Caspian seals and analyse the biological samples. Before seal trapping, aerial reconnaissance of shalygas (potential places of potential places of their haul-out sites) is carried out. Then an international group of scientists (we involve researchers from Russia) goes on a vessel to the sea, to the place of work. Morphometric study of seals is carried out; biological samples taken by non-invasive and minimally invasive methods are sent for toxicological, microbiological (virological, molecular-virological, molecular-bacterial) studies, as well as for parasitological, hormonal, morphological, genetic and other analyses. KAAE has its own laboratory for toxicological studies, microbiological and chemical-analytical laboratories, as well as a hydrological laboratory, which allows us to identify food objects of the Caspian seal. Non-invasive and minimally invasive biosampling methods do not harm animals and contribute to obtaining reliable data.”

Fyodor V. Klimov also reported on the second important task – the study of the abundance and birth rate of the Caspian seal in the Northern Caspian in winter and spring. To implement it in 2020-2022. the following types of research were carried out: multispectral aerial survey of breeding female seals and newborn pups using infrared, video and photography from an aircraft; determination of the nature and distribution density of the Caspian seal haul-out sites on ice fields; assessment of females and pups number ratio; aerial photography of seal haul-out sites in spring; cameral processing of aerial survey data, verification of data, their layout and assessment of the Caspian seal abundance; mapping of seal concentration areas; development of proposals for the conservation of the Caspian seal population.

Based on the current state of the Caspian seal population by 2022, age structure, time of maturity and barrenness of females, the lower limit of the estimated population size is 311 thousand individuals. An analysis of the available data for 2012, 2020, 2021 and 2022 showed an increase in the number of pups by 25.7% in the current 2022 (compared to 2012 data) and by 7.5% (compared to 2021 data). There were 20.6% of breeding females in the Caspian seal population  in 2020 and 2021, and 21.6% in 2022. The total population size slightly increased (7.5%), and its lower population limit was, as noted earlier, 311.381 thousand individuals in winter 2022.

“Taking into account the high natural mortality of the Caspian seal pups, an increase in 7.5% is not a high figure. But the population size in 2022 is more than in 2012 (when there were 260 thousand individuals) and in 2020 and 2021. The population is influenced by climate, which is associated with ice conditions. In recent years, warm winters have been observed, which affects the formation of ice fields. Ice forms mainly in the north of the Kazakhstani water area of the Caspian Sea and is absent during the seal breeding season in Russian waters. For this reason, all seal surveys in recent years have been carried out in Kazakhstan with the involvement of Russian specialists. A twin-engine aircraft is used to ensure flight safety, and a three-kilometer tack grid is used to improve the accuracy of accounting.”

Another important area of activity is to ensure the safe passage of icebreakers for the Caspian seals to the Kashagan field during the formation of ice cover in the Northern Caspian. In order to further apply measures for mitigating the impact of icebreaking operations on seals, as well as to form a scientific data base for their conservation, NCOC N.V. carries out the following work in winter, involving KAAE and other organizations: the monitoring of icebreakers impact on the Caspian seals  in areas of their concentration; the detection of seal haul-out sites in the areas of icebreakers transiting, using aerial reconnaissance and laying the icebreaker routes away from haul-out sites. Thanks to the observers on board icebreakers, who correct the passage of vessels away from seal concentrations, the risk of encounters with seals is significantly reduced – up to 20% (compared to the route proposed as a result of aerial reconnaissance). And if aerial reconnaissance can show the presence of 160 thousand seals on ice, then during navigation, due to bypassing their haul-outs from the icebreaker, only about 300-400 Caspian seals are recorded. Cartographic material is also prepared for each aerial reconnaissance flight based on current data on ice conditions and the presence of seals. Specialists assess the effectiveness of previously developed measures to reduce the impact of icebreaking vessel traffic on the Caspian seal population, prepare recommendations to improve these measures, and carry out other work.

In 2022, with the financial support of NCOC N.V. and the Committee of Fisheries of the Ministry of Ecology, Geology and Natural Resources of the Republic of Kazakhstan, KAAE started developing a NSJ (Natural Scientific Justification) to organize a nature reserve in the Kazakhstani sector of the Caspian Sea, which will ensure the protection of the Caspian seal haul-out sites and places for other vulnerable species of marine fauna and flora. The development of TEJ (Technical and Economic Justification) is scheduled for 2023.

NCOC N.V. is creating a popular science film “The Caspian Seal” with the involvement of film industry professionals. The film is based on important information about the life of seals, obtained during its comprehensive study using modern methods, satellite technologies widely used in world practice. Many unique shots have been filmed directly during the field study of seals in the Kazakhstani and Russian waters of the Northern Caspian. The film also uses special footage from airplanes, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and icebreakers, made during the research by scientists from Kazakhstan and Russia.

At the end of the joint report, Fyodor V. Klimov emphasized on the fact that the implementation of programmes, including those for the Caspian seal, was aimed at taking all necessary measures in order to preserve biological diversity and develop fruitful international cooperation in this area. In the coming years, as a result of the implementation of the programmes, a sufficient amount of scientifically based material will be collected to understand how successfully the Caspian seal breeds in modern conditions and survives in the natural environment. The conducted studies will allow scientists to assess the population size and status.

The abstracts “The Abundance and Status of the Caspian seal Population in 2019-2022” can be found in the collection “Abstracts of the All-Russian Conference “Marine Biology in the 21st Century: Systematics, Genetics, Ecology of Marine Organisms” (in memory of Academician Oleg G. Kusakin), September 20-23, 2022, Vladivostok, Russia” (download the collection in Russian; the abstracts are on p. 126).

In the top photo: Participants in the All-Russian Conference “Marine Biology in the 21st Century: Systematics, Genetics, Ecology of Marine Organisms”, dedicated to the memory of Academician O.G. Kusakin, September 20-23, 2022, Vladivostok, Russia.



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