Its status as the area’s top predator has not stopped the endangered Caspian seal’s numbers from plummeting. Conservationists hope international action can come to its rescue.The Caspian Sea is vast and ancient. Formed 5.5 million years ago, it’s the largest enclosed body of water on earth, covering a surface area of almost 400,000 square kilometers.
The Caspian seal, which is the only mammal and top predator to inhabit the sprawling waters ought to have it good. But that’s not the case. Over the past century, human habits and tastes have caused a collapse in the numbers of the world’s smallest earless seals.
“Pinniped populations tend to be quite robust. There are not really any pressures other than human,” said Simon Goodman, an evolutionary biologist with the University of Leeds and a key member of the Caspian Seal Project, an international alliance that has worked on protecting the creatues for years.
Studies of old hunting records have led scientists to conclude that at the end of the 19th century, up to a million of the seals basked on the shores of the Caspian and pursued prey in its chilly waters. Now, there are just over 100,000 – a tenth of the original population.
An orgy of commercial hunting during the Soviet era is chiefly to blame for their demise, although that practice tailed off in the period immediately after the collapse of the bloc because the huge ice-breakers needed to get to the seals’ breeding grounds were difficult to come by.
Now the Caspian states – Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – impose quotas on the number of seals that can be killed each year, but the marine mammals face another human menace – our appetite for caviar.
In January 2014, after rampant overfishing pushed sturgeon – the source of caviar – to the brink of extinction, Russian authorities introduced a ban on fishing the species in the wild. The move received the backing of the other four countries around the Caspian Sea, from where 90 percent of the world’s caviar originates.
But with the value of the delicacy ranging from between $7,000 and $10,000 a kilo, and black market demand for the product rising, the temptation to poach sturgeon and harvest their eggs is huge.
Indeed a report released May 2016 by conservation group WWF showed all species of the fish worldwide are now under threat. And that has an impact on Caspian seals.
In one fishing season between 2008 and 2009, at least 1,215 seals became entangled in nets used for fishing sturgeon, a 2013 study published by Goodman and his Leeds University colleagues showed.
“There are now hundreds, if not thousands of seals being drowned in nets and having nets surround their bodies, killing them slowly,” another author of the report, Sue Wilson, told DW. “And everywhere they go, they end up swimming into these bits of net.”
Wilson, who is the coordinator of the Caspian Seal Project, says the true extent of illegal fishing and damage to seals is hard to ascertain. Actual figures could be even higher.
What is known, however, is that the seal will remain under threat for as long as humans maintain an appetite for caviar.
“As long it’s such a lucrative business to be in, it’s difficult to see how you can do anything to combat it,” Goodman said.
Help is at hand
One of the biggest problems for the seal is that its once-abundant home is landlocked, which means the animal can’t migrate. They simply have to take their chances in the brackish Caspian waters. And large-scale conservation efforts, which require cooperation between the five states, have so far proven difficult.
That said, networks of local conservationists are doing what they can to try and stabilize the seal population.
In Kazakhstan, scientists such as Mirguliy Baimukanov provide invaluable links to the authorities. As member of the Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology in the city of Almaty, he is able to work with the government to facilitate international visits and surveys needed to research the seals.
Much work is conducted in autumn at a site near the border with Turkmenistan where the animals are easy to access – and admire. Baimukanov has helped monitor population numbers.
In Azerbaijan, Tariel Eybatov has been studying the animals for more than 40 years, and has seen them disappear before his eyes. Along one peninsula that was once home to an estimated 200,000 seals, none have been seen in years.
But the resources to track whether they have died off or merely migrated to another area of the sea are lacking, which is indicative of the inconsistencies in the different Caspian countries’ approaches to conservation.
Yet for all the problems, Goodman sees hope for the future – if countries act now.
“If we can get some policies that would reduce the levels of mortality and provide protection for critical habitats, that would be an important step,” Goodman said. “But the clock is definitely ticking.”