Marine biologist Mart Jüssi interviewed by Baltic News Service (BNS) editor Sven Harjo, November 18th, 2014
English translation Looduskalender
Minister of the Environment Keit Pentus-Rosimannus signed the management plan for gray seals on November 14th. What is this document?
Originally work was commissioned that would provide an overview of the life of gray seals and the circumstances threatening their status as a species of the Estonian coastal waters. The client, the Ministry of Environment, also wanted an overview of the pros and cons of seal hunting. Since this hunting clearly had no positive effects, the plan was shelved for years. Now that favourable effects have been glued on by interest groups the programme was signed by the Minister. No reason for rejoicing – the chapter on hunting completed in some excitement raises more questions than it provides answers.
When will hunters arrive at actual seal hunting and what is necessary for starting the hunting?
The hunting will be governed by regulations. General practice is that the regulations take in account the particular characteristics of the animal to be hunted and general principles of hunting. On shooting marine animals there are conditions that must be reflected in the regulations. Quite as game cannot simply be shot from the hip so it is with writing regulations. Regulations that establish the time period, hunting method and hunting areas must be thoroughly discussed, since introducing one more use of nature in the sea has an impact on society at large.
What documents are still needed before the first shots? Do any regulations have to be changed?
Starting the hunt presupposes a review of the provisions in the Hunting Act because although gray seals were pushed into it as game animals, at sea the larger part of the Act tends to founder. In the current directives for use of the sea it is mostly an area where seal hunting would be excluded, even where the itch to hunt is perhaps greatest.
If all documents are finalized then how many grey seals might be shot per year?
As a rule, shooting the increment part of a growing population generally does not harm the hunted population. Experience shows that in the case of gray seals the set objectives are not reached anywhere, thus the suggested 200 individuals should not put seals at the Estonian coasts at risk. Nor does any plan foresee an increase of the number to a level that would begin to reduce the seal population. To do that, several thousand individuals a year must be killed, for this we are neither willing nor prepared.
Where can gray seals be hunted?
Given the way of life of gray seals, hunting at their main resting areas cannot be considered – hundreds, sometimes thousands of them are there, shooting would be contrary to the principles of conservation. Likewise it is evidently not sensible to kill seals during the pupping period on sea ice but this was actually the most traditional hunting area! Remains to ”pick” occasional dozers on the beach rocks; it was done in the old times but beside the main hunting.
What hunting methods are allowed?
Nowadays a rifle is always used for hunting. The talk about firing only into the head is reasonable – getting a hit in a well-fattened body is not always possible and an animal escaping into water does not leave chances for tracing and hitting again. Hunters should be aware of the fact that a seal is much smaller within the fat than it looks outwardly. Because of this, a hunter in the old days had to put out a candle at a hundred paces with a rifle shot in order to be allowed to go out to sea.
Between which dates may gray seals be shot?
If hunting on the spring ice according to the best traditions is no longer possible today then the summer and autumn seasons remain. Preferably autumn because the fattened animal perhaps will remain floating then even if it falls into the water.
Will hunting by ”traditional methods” - seal hook, net, club - be allowed?
The traditional hunting periods and methods don’t agree with 21st century understandings about hunting methods, places and times. This puts the advocates of reviving old traditions to a severe test, some tales no longer have as enthusiastic supporters in today’s society as it is presumed at times.
Does seal hunting require special skills? If so, which?
The first skill that is needed in Estonia is the ability to tell the difference between a gray seal and a ringed seal. Ringed seals are not unconditionally huntable but rather totter on the verge of strict protection. Pulling the trigger in excitement can be a serious mistake; among hunters bears shot in the course of a boar hunt are not highly rated nor are their killers. When we read in the Maaleht or hear that who has once seen never more makes a mistake, then to cool down the proclaimers – with Ivar (marine biologist Ivar Jüssi – BNS) we have observed seals for 25 years in the course of work, spent days that amount to several years at sea, and still we have to concentrate at times before getting the seal species right. Where both species can be hunted this is merely a matter of reputation of course.
Are the protected ringed seals and gray seals easy to tell apart?
Not necessarily, young grays are at times in company with ringed seals and ringed seals again are very similar to young grays. Light can play tricks, the species characteristics seen in an optical sight may reach the brain only when the finger already has pressed the trigger.
Can gray seals be shot from a boat? How do you retrieve a creature shot at great distance, won’t it sink to the bottom?
Shooting from a boat into water is certainly a test of a hunter’s skills but at what price? Not each bullet aimed at the head is sure to hit the brain because the gray seal has a quite long snout, and a painful and bloody death is not acceptable nowadays for marine creatures. Nor is there any man or dog that could pick up the trail of blood in the sea and finish the job.
Can hunting fend off gray seals from fishermen’s equipment? This was the main argument from the seal hunting supporters.
If the purpose of the hunt is to kill the animal then that animal certainly won’t go to the net again. The next one does, it has always done so, there are tens of thousands queuing up. If the seal is only injured it might not return but what kind of new or old practice would that be? It seems that the worries of fishermen is actually one force that pushes the cartridge into the bore for the gray seal. Fishermen and their comforters will have to do their own reckonings and weigh whether rashly made promises really are worth the eagerness and hope. Shooting seals at the nets is self-deception, strange that it is so hopefully believed. The wisdom of people of old says that water let in the pants in a November rain won’t warm the shepherd for long.
What else should be born in mind for a permission to start seal hunting?
The cart that the seal-hunting horse should be harnessed to is the purpose of the hunt, rather than one or another individual circumstance, interest or method. Because this cart is in fact undefined, the horse is not harnessed to anything. There are two possibilities: it will simply stand foolishly staring after the master who jumped into the cart and now rolls at speed out through the gate, or it bolts confused by the conflicting commands. There is no benefit from either. The Ministry of the Environment has the role of the master: I wish them wisdom and strength in handling the reins.