Hundreds of grey seal pups are dying on the shores of the Baltic Sea in Estonia and Latvia as the Nordic coastline faced the first winter without ice in decades, researchers said.
Grey seals need ice to breed pups during the winter. The ice helps them keep a distance from predators like wolves or foxes.
Without ice, the animals have been forced to live on small islands they would not normally live on. “There were some islands that were white, all covered with seal pups. We haven’t seen such a picture before,” researcher Mart Jussi, who has studied seals for the last 30 years, told Reuters.
Around 3000 seal pups are born each year on the Baltic Sea coast. “Most of the pups are going to die right now,” Jussi added.
He said some of the islands were so over-populated that he estimated at least 50 percent of the baby seals would die. That high rate was in part because pups lose their mothers more easily, which means they don’t get enough food.
The Nature Conservation Agency of Latvia has received hundreds of calls daily about seals, which would usually be living on the ice appearing on the coast.
Agnese Balandina, a specialist working with Latvia’s nature conservation agency, said the coronavirus outbreak combined with the warm weather had driven Latvians to the country’s beaches, increasing the likelihood of contact between people and seals.
The agency has set up warning signs on Latvian beaches, asking people to keep a distance of at least 50 meters (164 feet). Still, some people ignored the advice and went closer to take pictures of the seal pups at Jurmala near Riga.
Unless the pups are injured or in danger, the agency prefers not to intervene – and even those that are rescued and sent for rehabilitation in Riga’s zoo or other facilities around the country may not survive.
Meteorological agencies in both Estonia and Latvia said on their websites at the beginning of March that the winter of 2019-2020 was much warmer than usual.
Latvia’s Environment, Geology and Meteorology Centre said it was the warmest winter since records began in 1924.