Latest Mass Stranding Raises Concerns for Endangered Caspian Seals
May 12, 2021
About 170 endangered Caspian seals were found dead on Russia’s Dagestan coast near the city of Makhachkala from May 4-6, with fishing activities most likely to blame. Caspian seals are caught for their skin and even their blubber, which is made into an oil and promoted as a cure for COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses, according to experts. An expert says that more than 15 000 Caspian seals are killed annually and sent to the market. With only about 68,000 mature individuals left in the wild, experts say international cooperation by countries bordering the Caspian Sea is urgently needed to protect the imperiled species.
This mass stranding has rung alarm bells for conservationists working to protect Caspian seals (Pusa caspica), a species listed as endangered by both the IUCN and Russia’s own conservation authority. Since the start of the 20th century, the species has declined by more than 90%, with only an estimated 68,000 mature individuals remaining.
This stranding isn’t an isolated incident. In December 2020, authorities reported the deaths of 300 Caspian seals in another mass stranding on the Dagestan coast. However, some conservationists say the total number of deaths was closer to 2,000.
Caspian seals, like many other aquatic animals, are mostly threatened by the fishing industry and wildlife trade. Seals are one of the victims of aquatic animals that get strangled in fishing nets or bycatch. Some were promoting seal oil as one of the cures for coronavirus and was popular in the local markets.
Caspian seals inhabit the Caspian sea that belongs to five countries (Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkmenistan). According to Simon Goodman, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Leeds who has been researching Caspian seals for the past 17 years, “establishing adequate protected areas for Caspian seals is a necessary step in conserving the species. This would require international cooperation due to the species’ migratory nature.” He also added that “reducing human-driven seal deaths due to fishing and wildlife trade,” but “people involved in these activities need to be offered alternative forms of income.”