With its prized fur and blubber, the Caspian Sea’s only marina mammal is literally dying for fashion. If this doesn’t stop soon, sadly, its fate will be sealed
Found: Small but mighty, the diminutive Caspian seal (Pusa caspica) resides, as its name suggests, solely in the brackish waters of the landlocked Caspian Sea. It is thought to have originated in the northern seas up to three million years ago – that’s some pedigree. Most of the year they can be found throughout the Caspian, but during the cold months the vast majority head north-east to set up camp on the ice sheets for breeding (they’re monogamous, FYI). The absurdly adorable seal pups are born with thick white fur coats for insulation, before shedding them a month later for shiny dark grey skin.
Under threat because: As is often the case, sadly, hunting is the main culprit for their decline. Seal skins and the pups’ white fur are desirable for hats and clothing, while their blubber is valuable as a medicinal tonic and even as cattle feed. Plus, large numbers are reported to become tangled in illegal sturgeon-fishing nets. Natural predators – wolves and sea eagles – also play a part in their demise. Further threats could arise from oil-field development in the Caspian and climate change, which could cause the icy breeding grounds to melt prematurely. What does this all mean? Well, that numbers have fallen by 90 per cent, from more than a million a century ago. Yikes.
Outlook: The countries surrounding the sea – Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan – have all approved conservation plans to help protect the seals, but very little action has taken place. The plan includes banning hunting (various prohibitions began as far back as 1940), reducing accidental catches in fishing nets (and encouraging fisheries to release the seals, rather than kill them), and establishing protected areas. Some non-government organizations in the Caspian states have also been raising awareness of the seals’ plight. And the IDEA (International Dialogue for Environmental Action) campaign is working towards the recovery of biodiversity in the Caspian Sea. But more needs to be done, and fast.
Illustration by Margaux Carpentier
This story appeared in the Autumn 2016 issue of Baku magazine.