Seals Returning to Baltic Coast After 50 Year Hiatus

Photo: Tambako the Jaguar / CC

There was once a time when seals thrived in the cold waters of the Baltic sea, near the coast of Poland, but fishermen in the region didn't appreciate the competition. For decades, they drove away and killed thousands of seals until eventually there were none to be found. Now, after almost 50 years of absence in these waters, the animals are finally making a comeback -- thanks to tireless conservation efforts. Unfortunately, however, not everyone is cheering their return. From a natural population estimated to be around 100,000 seals strong at the turn of the 20th century, the animals suffered sharp declines mainly due to human activities. For fishermen, whose livelihoods depended on abundant fish stocks, seals were considered unwelcome competition -- so they began to wipe them out. Such was the anti-seal sentiment at the time that the government sanctioned a mass seal cull, offering rewards to fishermen for each seal killed.

In the last few decades, however, the governments of Sweden and Poland have been working to rectify the damage done over the last century by monitoring seal populations -- and it appears to be working. From an estimated 4,500 seals in the region just 20 years ago, their numbers are thought to be closer 20,000 today. A shift in attitudes has lead researchers to conclude that peaceful coexistence between man and seal is not only possible, but also necessary for the preservation of the ecosystem as a whole.

"The seals play a role of an ambassador of life in the Baltic," Prof Krzysztof Skora, head of the Hel Marine Station of the Institute of Oceanography at the University of Gdansk told IPS. "Though the seals are much leaner now, their overall health improved, we detect less heavy metals or toxic substances in their bodies. This means the sea is not as contaminated as in the past."

For some fishermen, however, the return of seals represents the same old threat to their way of life. A report from IPS explains:

Not everyone is pleased over the seals' comeback. Some fishermen complain that they steal their catch.

"Seals are a disaster," says Zbigniew Pyra, head of the Sea Fishermen Cooperative at Stegna, a community on the shore of Gdansk Bay. "We are unable earn our bread and butter."

"For two months I have not caught a single salmon," Pyra told IPS. "Near each of our nets four or five seals are cruising all the time. We try to throw stones at them, but they don't care. Then we find only fish heads and spines in the nets."

Fishermen wish to get damages from the government, like farmers who are being compensated for the devastation done by wild animals - but for now this is not on the agenda.

To help encourage a return to the natural habitation of seals in the region, organizations like the WWF have been working to educate locals how live harmoniously with animals. In particular, experts are stressing the importance of allowing seals to remain undisturbed along the coastline. Apparently, folks in the region have been so long without seals nearby, they've forgotten how best to treat them. In fact, 40 percent of people in Poland didn't even know that seals ever lived there.

When it comes to jeopardizing the fragile balance of ecosystems throughout the world, so often there are no second chances at making things right. But, as seals gradually make their return to the waters they once called home, only time will tell if we'll learn from our past mistakes -- or eventually repeat them.

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Tags: Animals | Fishing | Oceans

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