Lake Baikal's Vanishing Nerpa Seal

"The lake accounts for an astonishing 20 percent of the world's fresh water and is home to more than 2,500 different plant and animal species, four-fifths of them unique to Baikal. It is also home to the world's only fresh water seal, the nerpa. "
Friday, Jul. 27, 2001

By James Schofield

        Uzir, Olkhon Island, Lake Baikal — The seal's fur still glistens in the evening light by the fisherman's hut. Surrounded by buckets of bloody entrails, it seems almost alive, save for the blackness of empty eye sockets, picked clean by gulls on deck as the daily catch was brought home..
A baby nerpa seal on the thinning spring ice of Lake Baikal.
The seal population here has fallen from 104,000 in 1994 to between 55,000 and 70,000 today as poachers kill the seals for their valuable pelts.
Grabbing the seal by the scruff of its neck, Sergei, a thick-set migrant fisherman, wags its head playfully from side to side as if it were a stuffed toy. With stubby fingers he pries its jaws apart into a grotesque smile and laughs. "This one was lucky," he said. "It was about two years old. Most don't make it that long these days with all the poaching."
    Sergei travels 30 kilometers each summer across barren sand dunes and through dense forest to this remote weather station camp to work. The money he earns supports his wife and two children back home in the island's main town, Khuzir, once a thriving fishing community with a large fish-processing plant, but now little more than a couple hundred clapboard houses. The plant stands idle, and locals struggle to make ends meet as they have since state support evaporated in the early 1990s.

      Lake Baikal, known locally as the diamond of Siberia, forms an immense sickle-shaped scar on the earth almost 700 kilometers long and up to 70 kilometers wide, so large that it can be seen from space. To the south, past Buryatia and the Altai Mountains, the Mongolian steppe unfolds upon Central Asia. To the north lies Irkutsk, tinged with the faded European grandeur of more prosperous days. Beyond Irkutsk there is little but the vast expanse of forest and taiga that is Siberia, uninterrupted all the way to the Arctic Ocean.

      Baikal is as mind-boggling in size and as contradictory in character as the lands that surround it. The climate swings between extremes. Summers swelter in temperatures rising to more than 35 degrees Celsius, and the lakeside buzzes with an intense explosion of life, insects and flowers. Winter locks Baikal in a lifeless embrace as temperatures plunge below minus 50 degrees Celsius. The meters-thick ice is so clear that fishermen complain of vertigo when staring down at the fish.

      The lake accounts for an astonishing 20 percent of the world's fresh water and is home to more than 2,500 different plant and animal species, four-fifths of them unique to Baikal. It is also home to the world's only fresh water seal, the nerpa.

      Believed to have descended from the Arctic Ocean over 800,000 years ago, the nerpa has since claimed Lake Baikal as its own. With no natural predators other than humans, the seals are precious living symbols of the lake's uniqueness.
      For years, despite the lake's natural beauty, polluting industries sprang up around Baikal as Khrushchev pushed ahead with his industrial development policy regardless of its environmental impact. Toxic effluents from Mongolia flow into the lake from the Selanga River, and a paper mill on the southern shores of the lake still belches poisonous dioxin from smokestacks and releases chemicals directly into the water.

    After intense lobbying from environmental groups, some progress was made in the last few years to limit the damage. In 1999 a federal law on the protection of Lake Baikal was passed. At the same time, plans for new industries have been shelved and logging enterprises shut down.

    But these very efforts to protect the lake have contributed to another incipient disaster. As jobs have slowly dried up in the region over the last decade, the nerpa seal has come under threat because hundreds of people have been forced into poaching to make a living.

    The number of seals has plummeted in recent years to between 55,000 and 65,000, according to new figures released recently after a Greenpeace expedition to Baikal in the spring. The last seal count, in 1994, carried out by the Irkutsk Lemenological Institute, estimated the seal population at 104,000.

    With salaries in the Irkutsk region, on the lake's western edge, averaging 800 rubles (about $27) per month, the 1,000 rubles fetched by a baby seal pelt makes poaching an attractive line of work. "In the past no one bothered the seals," Sergei said. "If people had jobs and were paid decent money, they wouldn't need the nerpa."
Sergei, a migrant fisherman on Lake Baikal, with a nerpa seal. “This one was lucky,” he said.
“It was about two years old.” Poachers prey primarily on seal pups.
Without immediate efforts to stop the poaching and completely ban hunting, Greenpeace and seal specialists agree the consequences could be disastrous.
    "If the problem is not solved soon, then it might undermine the seal population permanently and even lead to its complete extermination," said Mikhail Pastukhov, the leading seal expert at the Irkutsk Geochemistry Institute.

    For centuries ethnic Buryats living around the lake have hunted seals, venturing out on the treacherous ice in the spring just after the pups, known as kumutkans, were born. It is a tradition that has been passed from father to son. The meat was eaten or preserved for the long winters ahead. Skins were used to cover canoes and the fur for clothing. Nothing was wasted, and the catch was small enough that the seal population was not threatened.

    In the Soviet era, permission for seal hunting was granted only to the Victory collective farm on the lake's north shore. "They were professionals," said Pastukhov, "and they stopped poachers from hunting." Today, however, things have changed. Licenses are issued by the State Fisheries Committee each year to anyone who can pay the 100 ruble price tag, up to a total harvest of 3,500 seals. The legal limit each season is 15 seals per license, though there is no way of determining how many seals are actually killed.

    Not everyone is concerned with such formalities. Illegal hunting is on the rise, and many poachers are novices as young as 15 who either do not know, or do not care, that a certain number of pups must live to ensure the survival of the species. Hunters prefer newborn pups with the softest fur — before molting in the sixth week — which brings the best price at market. "Of the 4,000 ice holes [outside the dens of the female nerpa] we inspected in the northern sector of the lake this spring, over 3,000 of them had been netted and not a single young seal was discovered," said Roman Pukhalov, coordinator of a Greenpeace anti-poaching expedition in April. This area is normally home to over 5,000 seals, he said. In the past no more than one-quarter of the seal lairs would be trapped in this way. The loss of whole generations of pups will lead to dramatic aging of the herd, which will then become progressively less fertile.

    The expedition, comprised of Greenpeace activists, inspectors from the Baikal Fisheries Committee, soldiers from the Irkutsk Cossack Army and a paraglider air crew, set out April 10 from Listvyanka, a small lakeshore settlement near Irkutsk. The team covered more than 4,000 kilometers of the frozen lake, confiscated four kilometers of poachers' nets and reported 50 violations. Two criminal cases were opened as a result.

    While few people dispute that the problem of poaching exists, not everyone agrees with the Greenpeace numbers or the dramatic threat to the seal population.

    Mikhail Grachev, director of the Irkutsk Lemenological Institute, an oceanographic research facility, said that the seal count undertaken by Greenpeace last spring was flawed.

    "It is quite evident that the accuracy of the spring survey is much, much lower than the last survey back in 1994," he said. That last count was undertaken by the Irkutsk Lemnological Institute under the guidance of Mikhail Pastukhov, whose father, also a seal specialist, invented the counting system in the 1960s.

    Grachev pointed out that during the count, a treacherous undertaking in which teams cross the ice during a brief period in April before the ice melts, only 16 separate test areas were counted for seals, compared to 27 in 1994. He also argued that the Greenpeace count made no allowance for the seals' habit of nesting in enormous clusters. Miss one of those clusters during the survey, he said, and the results are compromised.

    "It would be like trying to count the human population of the Irkutsk region without counting the city of Irkutsk itself," Grachev said.

    So is the nerpa really in danger? Alexander Vasyanovich, head of the government-funded Irkutsk Environment and Natural Resources Committee, thinks not.

    "There are various estimates (of seal numbers), but I believe that there are about 70,000 at the moment. There is no problem since the seals are not close to extinction. They are not dying off yet," said Vasyanovich.

    While accepting that poaching of the seals is a "sad Russian tradition," Grachev, whose institute also depends on local and federal government funds, is cautious when asked to describe the current plight of the seal.


    "It's not so bad. The situation could be worse," Grachev said. "Seals are clever and hunters are not."
Members of a recent Greenpeace expedition pull one of Lake Baikal’s nerpa seals from a poacher’s net.

    Both Grachev and Vasyanovich concede, however, that in principle the poaching should be stamped out completely, hunting strictly regulated, and further efforts made to protect the seals. But Roman Pukhalov of Greenpeace questions their assessment.

    "It is unclear on what scientific findings the Irkutsk regional authorities base their estimates of the seal population," Pukhalov said. "The state has not monitored the nerpa population for more than seven years. Moreover, their figure of 70,000 still indicates that the population has declined by 34,000 in seven years."

    Although this year's prolonged mild spring and late thaw allowed the seals longer to give birth and more pups were born than usual, increased poaching has more than matched that growth.

    "According to preliminary visual assessments, I believe that a minimum of 12,000 seals were killed by poachers," Pastukhov said of this year's hunting season. At this rate, the seals could be extinct in a matter of years. If the Greenpeace figures are correct, only 55,000 to 65,000 seals remain.

    Even based on his higher estimate of 70,000 seals, Vasyanovich concedes that "only one or two thousand seals may be taken safely each year." That figure is well below the official limit of 3,500 seals per year set by the State Fisheries Committee, and a mere fraction of the 12,000 that Pastukhov estimates died this spring.

    Money, or rather the lack of it, partly explains the local failure to respond to the poaching problem. The State Fisheries Committee, responsible for issuing licenses and apprehending poachers, has just eight inspectors to patrol the entire western half of the lake. That leaves each with a staggering 2,500 square kilometers to cover.

    It is not surprising, then, that only six criminal cases were filed by inspectors last year. Yet even that figure seems low for an eight-man team. Greenpeace contends that the inspectors are in cahoots with the poachers.

    "Some of the biggest poachers are the inspectors themselves," said Roman Pukhalov, who also believes that many more licenses are sold each year than permitted by law.

    Georgy Markov, senior state fisheries inspector, calmly dismisses this accusation. "We have had no such cases at all," he said. "If an inspector were caught poaching, he would be sacked and punished to the full extent of the law."

    Given the current conviction rate, Markov's statement seems rather optimistic. So does his belief that the inspectors have struck such fear into the locals that almost no one hunts without a license. With so few inspectors on patrol, poachers know they can flout the law with some impunity.

    Markov, who denies that poaching is carried out on a large scale, does concede that more and more seals are being killed illegally. Following a rise in the price for seal fur last year in China, the Baikal locals turned to hunting seals as well as fish. When it comes down to trying to feed the family, Markov said, "most people are not at all interested in the fate of the lake."

    Greenpeace has called for an immediate ban on all hunting before the nerpa is wiped out, allowing only a limited harvest of seals by local residents as part of "traditional nature management" and a small catch for scientific research.

    This goal is probably unrealistic. No matter how much money is spent to police the lake, no crackdown on poachers will succeed unless new jobs are created in the area.

    "We have to find economically viable solutions and create new jobs that are environmentally friendly," Grachev said. He explained the challenge facing authorities by drawing a parallel to the Baikalsk pulp and paper mill, a 30-year-old cellulose production plant built during the Khrushchev era that pumps poisonous effluents directly into the lake and is one of the region's main polluters.

    "Khrushchev was a hooligan," Grachev said. "He said all of us had to work for the state and that Lake Baikal must work as well."

    Local officials cannot simply shut the mill down, because this would tear the local community apart. The complex employs over 2,500 people and supports the entire population of 17,000.

    "Fortunately, things are different than they were under Stalin," Grachev said. "You can't just come with dogs and remove people from their homes."

    Others believe the lake, if properly managed, could furnish raw materials for local industry to produce cosmetics, medicine, mineral water and food.

    "The idea should be to turn the people into voluntary defenders of our wildlife," Vasyanovich said.

    With funds severely limited and many other demands on the region's budget, many think that while the political will exists in principle to tackle seal poaching, the lake and the nerpa are simply not a priority at the moment.
Uzir, a weather station outpost on Olkhon Island, a summer destination for Lake Baikal’s fishermen.

Lake Baikal was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. Three years later a federal law protecting Lake Baikal was passed, but Greenpeace complains that the law only exists on paper. It has urged UNESCO to reprimand the Russian government and to add Lake Baikal to its priority danger list.

    Experts agree that a single government agency should coordinate efforts to save Lake Baikal. This agency should consult not only environmental groups, but also industrialists, politicians and local residents in order to arrive at an integrated response.

    This will not be easy. All agree that the agency should be based in Siberia. "Moscow is too far away, and the people there are too fond of money," Grachev said.

    And few believe that environmental issues, even concerns about a national treasure such as Lake Baikal, are near the top of anyone's agenda.

    "Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that Baikal is 5,000 kilometers away from Moscow," Markov said.



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