The Caspian Seal (Phoca caspica) is the smallest earless seal and lives exclusively in and around the Caspian Sea. Caspian Seals inhabit not only the shoreline but also rocky islands and floating ice blocks across the Caspian. In winter, the seals move to the North of the Caspian where they mate, breed and nurse their pups on the ice sheets.
During some parts of the year they live in large groups and at other times, especially during the summer, they are solitary animals. Caspian Seals are monogamous, and only mate once a year, pregnancy rates for the seals are at an all-time low of 30%. Caspian Seals are not fully grown until they are 8-10 years old, they weigh around 5kg and live for 40-50 years.
Although Caspian Seals are an endangered species, they are still legally and illegally hunted for their fur and oil, causing further decline in the already dwindling numbers of these rare and beautiful creatures.
Whilst Kazakhstan has ended hunting quotas in recent years, in Russia seals are still hunted on an industrial scale. In 2017, the Russian hunting quota was 6,000. In the same year, the fishing allowance for the whole Caspian Sea was 12,000.
Many of the seals that are illegally hunted are pups – prized for their soft fur. Seal skins are used for hats and other clothing and an individual high-quality seal skin can sell for up to US$100 at the point of origin. Seal blubber is also used as a medicinal tonic, fishing bait, and cattle feed, and seal oil can sell for US$14 per litre (according to the IUCN).
It is estimated that fishing nets are responsible for between 5% and 19% of all seal deaths each year. In 2013, BP, the oil giant, identified fishing nets as the most critical threat to the future of the seals in the Caspian.
Fishing nets are used to catch sturgeon, but seals can get tangled and whilst trying to escape are often strangled.
Solutions to prevent mammals getting caught in fishing nets have proved effective elsewhere in the world, such as using a circle hook and auditory deterrents to keep mammals away from areas that are being fished. In the future, the Center will be exploring options to improve fishing practices in the Caspian.