Bigger and Deeper Pool for Seals at Reykjavík Zoo

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A new seal enclosure will greatly expand the space seals have for swimming at Reykjavík Family Park and Zoo. Reykjavík City Council approved a motion today to being the construction of a new pool and service building at the zoo. There are four seals currently in the enclosure, which is also used to rehabilitate wild animals in distress.

The new pool will connect to the older one, where the seals are currently kept. It will be significantly deeper, allowing the seals to dive to a depth of four metres [13 feet]. It will include large windows along one side that will allow park visitors to see the seals from a new perspective.

Reykjavíkurborg. The current seal pool (bottom right) and the planned extension and service building.

“This addition will greatly improve the zoo’s ability to provide educational services in addition to taking better care of the animals, including reception of wild animals in distress in connection with Reykjavík Animal Services,” a notice from the City of Reykjavík states. The pool is expected to be completed by November 2022 and will cost an estimated ISK 125 million [$955 million; €904,000].

Most of the animals at Reykjavík Family Park and Zoo are domestic animals such as sheep and goats. Keeping seals at the park has been controversial. In 2019, Marine biologist and Reykjavík Family Park and Zoo division head Þorkell Heiðarsson argued that pups born in the enclosure should be released into the wild. Icelandic law, however, does not allow seals to be released from captivity.

Seal Numbers Swell in North Iceland

seals Iceland selir selur

Seals numbers have risen on Vatnsnes peninsula, North Iceland, according to the results of a seal count conducted last weekend, RÚV reports. A team of experts and volunteers counted 718 seals in the region, up from 580 when the last count was done in 2016. Icelandic Seal Centre CEO Páll L. Sigurðsson believes a seal hunting ban has had a positive impact on the population.

The count was conducted over an area stretching across more than 100km (62mi) on the Vatnsnes and Heggstaðanes peninsulas. “We counted 718 seals, which is considerably better than the last three times. The last time we counted, 2016, we got 580 seals. So we are very happy that the population isn’t decreasing rather is at least staying consistent,” Páll stated.

Seals hunted over salmon

Seal counts have been conducted on Vatnsnes since 2007 and the average number has been 757 animals. Páll believes the seal hunting ban implemented two years ago has helped keep the population steady. “That people aren’t killing seals at estuaries where there were salmon. People had the misconception that seals were eating the salmon and then they were killed on sight, we can put it that way.”

Volunteer counters both local and foreign

Páll expressed gratitude for the interested in the project, both from media and tourists. “There was very good participation, altogether there were 58, and 55 that walked or hiked Vatnsnes and Heggstaðanes. So we are very pleased and thankful for that group of volunteers.” Another count is planned for next year and organisers hope to make it an annual event. Páll says the information gathered will be useful to seal research in the coming decades.

Reykjavík Zoo to Enlarge Seal Enclosure

Reykjavík Family Park and Zoo will enlarge its seal pool and renovations are expected to begin next year. The total cost of the renovations is not yet known but the city budget allocates ISK 100 million ($777,000/€644,000) toward the project.

Dóra Björt Guðjónsdóttir, a city councillor for the Pirate Party, confirmed the project in conversation with Vísir. She stated that the zoo’s current enclosure for seals is not large enough according to the regulations of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. It will now be enlarged to ensure sufficient space and the best possible conditions for the marine mammals.

Cannot Release Seals Into the Wild

Some opposing voices from the public have criticised the move, saying it would be better to release the zoo’s seals into the wild. Dóra Björt stated that if the choice were hers, she would not keep the animals in captivity, but current law does not allow release of the animals into the wild. “According to current legislation, seals cannot be released from captivity, so it is important to take good care of the seals that live there,” Dóra Björt stated.

Read More: Seal Pup Born at Reykjavík Zoo Raises Ethical Concerns

The city councillor added that she supports developing the zoo further toward an animal refuge model, where its facilities would be primarily used to house animals in need of rehabilitation or medical care. Earlier this year, for example, the zoo rehabilitated a sick seal pup found in South Iceland. Once recovered, the seal swam back to its home waters along the Greenland coast.

City to Streamline Animal Services

The renovations to the seal facilities is part of an overall review of animal services at the City of Reykjavík. All animal services provided by the city, including those for household pets, will be brought under one roof at the zoo, which will build a new educational centre on its grounds as well. Seals are not the only animals at the zoo that will be getting a bit more room – enlargement of sheep and goat enclosures has already begun.

There’s a Catch – Can Iceland Save Its Seals Without Hurting Its Fishermen?

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Fishing has always been a pillar of Iceland’s economy. In recent decades, consolidation and tech improvements have transformed the industry so that today most commercial fishing, especially for cod, is done with large trawlers. One fish species along Iceland’s coast, however, is still mostly caught by small-town fishermen on little boats: the lumpfish. Lumpfish are an important source of income for independent fishermen in Iceland’s countryside. But this lifeline for Iceland’s smaller communities could be at risk due to the age-old method of catching lumpfish: nets.

While nets are great for catching fish, the problem with them is you can’t decide what or who gets stuck in them. Because they use nets, lumpfish fishermen often also trap more bycatch than other types of fishing operations in Iceland. The bycatch includes different kinds of fish, but also seabirds, seals, and even small whales. In an age where environmental matters are more pressing than ever, the wastefulness of bycatch stings. When the bycatch includes species under threat, as is the case for harbour seals, the problem becomes grave.

International fishing regulators and institutions are pressing Iceland to work on its bycatch problem. Though environmental concerns are pressing, it’s clear that banning lumpfish fishing would devastate Iceland’s independent fishermen and their communities, many of which are already struggling to maintain their way of life.

Fishermen working at the Bakkafjörður harbour
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Lumpfish Support Small-Town Fishermen

The lumpfish is caught for its roe. Until recently, the fish itself was discarded after the roe were harvested. Today, however, it is shipped to China. The roe is sold on the European market, mainly to the Nordic countries, France, and Germany, where it is marketed as a more affordable alternative to sturgeon caviar.

Lumpfish season is in spring. Since lumpfish stay close to the coast, they are inaccessible to large ships, meaning that most of them are caught by independent fishermen in small boats using nets just like their forefathers did before them. While Reykjavík’s harbours are large fishing hubs, the majority of lumpfish is landed in small towns and villages far from the capital.

Bycatch Includes Threatened Species

As with all net fishing, Iceland’s lumpfish gillnets carry some risk of bycatch. In fact, Iceland lost its Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sustainable lumpfish fishing certification two years ago due to the number of seals and seabirds caught in nets: specifically harbour seals, grey seals, black guillemot, and great cormorants. While other species constituted a higher percentage of the bycatch, the harbour seal and black guillemot bycatch is more concerning as their stocks are smaller and both are on the Icelandic Institute of Natural History’s Red Lists.

Iceland has since taken extensive actions to improve the sustainability of lumpfish fishing. Iceland Sustainable Fisheries Project Manager Kristinn Hjálmarsson is cautiously optimistic that nothing stands in the way of regaining the MSC certification. According to Kristinn, the most important measures taken were the closure of certain fishing grounds to lumpfish nets, new laws and regulations, and easier access to bycatch registration (fishermen can now report bycatch through an app).

A ban on seal hunting introduced last year was a step towards better regulation of bycatch, in addition to a similar ban issued for black guillemot a year earlier. “Finally, it was a matter of changing people’s outlook, making it everyone’s shared goal to make sure this type of fishing is sustainable,” Kristinn says. The government has received a confirmation that its actions were considered sufficient. If the results are not contested in the next few days, Iceland will receive a five-year sustainable lumpfish fishing certificate.

While this is good news, it doesn’t let lumpfish fishermen off the hook. Iceland’s MSC certification is conditional: it requires the fishing not to hinder the recovery of harbour seal or black guillemot stocks during its five-year duration, and it is issued on the condition that alternative measures are reviewed to minimise unwanted catch.

Seals
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A looming ban on seafood export to the US

While the MSC certification is within reach, (pending a a period of 15  working days during which eligible parties may file a
‘Notice of Objection’ to the Final Draft Report and Determination) , the lumpfish industry faces another, more imminent threat. Bycatch from Icelanders’ lumpfish fishing is currently too high to comply with the United States’ Marine Mammal Protection Act. Steps have been taken to decrease bycatch of seals and small whales, but if Iceland is not found to have had sufficient success by March of next year, the export of Icelandic seafood to the US could be curtailed for at least four years.

The US Marine Mammal Protection Act is a piece of legislation from 1972 banning fishing that endangers marine mammals in the US. A 2016 amendment to the legislation requires other nations to comply with similar regulations to be able to export their seafood to the US. To comply, Iceland will need to turn in data showing they comply with the rules by March 1, 2021, or else the US market will be closed to certain seafood products on January 1, 2022, for at least four years.

lumpfish
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Steps taken to improve sustainability insufficient

Though Iceland looks poised to receive a conditional MSC certification, the US stamp of approval is further out of reach. The Marine Mammal Act’s limitations on harbour seal bycatch are much stricter. According to Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (MFRI) fisheries scientist Guðjón Már Sigurðarson, to avoid a ban on lumpfish imports to the US, Iceland’s annual bycatch of seals may not surpass 40 animals. For the past few years, Icelandic fishermen have reported a yearly bycatch of about 700 seals, thereof around 450 harbour seals. The MFRI estimates the actual number of harbour seals caught to be between 900-1,500 per year. That’s a sizable amount, considering that the harbour seal stock along Iceland’s coast only numbered an estimated 7,600 animals in 2016, down from 30,000 in 1980. The Icelandic Institute of Natural History placed the harbour seal on is Red List in 2018. Its main threats were cited as hunting and getting caught in nets.

Even with the actions taken to secure the MSC certification, a dramatic enough reduction to make lumpfish fishing comply to the US regulations is unlikely. The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated matters. While the MFRI and the Directorate of Fisheries had planned extensive bycatch inspections to gather reliable data, gathering bans and infection prevention restrictions made most of the in-person inspections impossible. The result is that authorities don’t have reliable data on whether their actions have had the intended effect. The next lumpfish season won’t start until next spring – past the deadline to turn in the required data to US authorities.

Bycatch of small whales has also been around the limit, but it’s less likely to be a sticking point in negotiations with US authorities, as the numbers are lower. Furthermore, experiments with sonic whale repellents have shown success. While high-frequency sounds and recorded whale warning calls failed to repel whales at first, a revised version of the warning call repellent has proved effective. No small whales were caught in the nets emitting the warning call, while nets without repellents caught the usual amount. Unfortunately, no such repellent has been found to work on seals. “They’re much too smart,” Guðjón says. “It might work for two or three days, but by then, the seal has learned that there’s no danger. Some of the repellents even ended up attracting seals because they’d discover that the nets emitting the sounds contained plenty of fish.”lumpfish nets

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The effects are unclear

Chairman of the National Association of Small Boat Owners Þorlákur Halldórsson says the Ministry of Fisheries has put together a committee to tackle Iceland’s response to the US Marine Mammal Protection Act. Still, they’re at a loss on what that response might be. As it stands, complying with the regulations is incompatible with continuing net fishing.

Yet the effects of banning lumpfish net fishing would negatively impact small towns and fishing companies. Lumpfish is the only fish in Iceland that is primarily caught in nets, usually on small boats operated by independent fishermen. Lumpfish fishermen also mostly live outside the capital area, in small towns and villages. “If lumpfish fishing gets hit, it’s the countryside that receives the blow,” said Þorlákur.

He raised the subject of the US import ban at the annual meeting to bring awareness to the issue and the fact that the clock is ticking. “Interested parties such as seafood exporters might not even realise that this threat is imminent or how little time there is left to stop it.” According to Þorlákur, the environmental measures taken last autumn have proved a success. While COVID-19 impacted inspections, the data they did manage to compile suggests that the numbers were something to celebrate. “No one is as qualified as fishermen to minimise bycatch, as they know every grain of sand and every wave of their fishing grounds.”  Still, he agrees with marine scientists that reducing the bycatch of seals to 40 animals per year is just not possible.

young seal
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So what then?

How would a US import ban affect Iceland? Ásta Sigrún Magnúsdóttir told Fiskifréttir that “the import ban would only affect products from fishing where the bycatch was over a certain limit. The exact interpretation is yet to be known.” She added that there was no discussion among Icelandic authorities of banning lumpfish fishing. But while the MMPA only affects seafood where the fishing methods cause too much bycatch, it’s not just the lumpfish export that’s at stake. In an email, Ásta stated: “According to the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute’s projections, only lumpfish fishing produces seal bycatch exceeding US limits. Some bycatch is produced by bottom trawlers and cod nets but combined; they are under the bycatch limits. If we apply for a US export permit for lumpfish, all products from fishing that combined exceed the limits will face the same limitations, that is all fishing where seals get caught in fishing gear.” In short, the much more profitable cod export market is also at stake.

The majority of lumpfish products are exported to Europe and China and the amount of lumpfish products shipped to the US annually (2% of Iceland’s total export) is minuscule in comparison to Iceland’s US cod export. While banning lumpfish net fishing is not on the table yet, it’s clear that the impact of the traditional way of fishing is undesirable, both in terms of the environment and international seafood markets. The industry is taking steps to minimise seal bycatch but further steps are necessary to improve living conditions for both independent fishermen in rural areas and harbour seals.

Seal Pup Born at Reykjavík Zoo Raises Ethical Concerns

Kobba, one of two female seals that live at the Reykjavík Family Park and Zoo gave birth to a seal pup on Tuesday night, Vísir reports. While the pup, who has yet to be sexed by zoo staff, is feeding well and appears to be in good health, following its mother wherever she goes, its birth has raised concerns about the suitability of the zoo’s seal habitat as well as the pup’s future.

The zoo’s seal enclosure has been home to three seals, two females and one male, since it first opened in 1990. The adults are all around thirty years old. The enclosure is, however, fairly small, meaning that there is not enough space to accommodate more than three adults. Current law prohibits animals that have been raised in captivity or domestic situations from being released into the wild. As such, all seal pups that have been born at the zoo – around 30 in total – have, up until now, been euthanised.

Times have changed

Marine biologist and Reykjavík Family Park and Zoo division head Þorkell Heiðarsson told Vísir that times have changed and that it would be nice to see the seal facilities expanded – to make the seal pond large enough for more animals and also deep enough for the seals to dive in.

“It’s important that the park be at the forefront of stewardship of the animals that are here…We need to take initiative…that’s my general opinion on the issue,” he remarked. The fate of the zoo’s seal pups has been a particularly hot button issue since TV presenter and former City Councillor Gísli Marteinn Baldursson tweeted about it. Þorkell says that the increased public scrutiny hopefully means that planning for an expanded enclosure can get underway soon.

Even so, Þorkell wanted to remind people of how much public attitudes have changed toward seals since the zoo first opened. He explained that Icelanders used to consider seals vermin on the country’s shores. At that time, people were concerned about seals carrying ringworm, as well as upset about the damage that they did eating through fishermen’s nets. Because of this, people were actually paid to shoot seals, which, when combined with environmental changes in the ocean and indirect fishing, has caused the population to decline significantly over the last 30 years or so. There were about 33,000 seals around Iceland in 1980, whereas today, there are only about 7,000.

“They have a very strong instinct for fishing”

Þorkell says that the law governing the release of animals into the wild is also complicated because it’s intended to apply to domestic pets that would be unable to take care of themselves in nature, not wild animals. Þorkell believes that seals born in captivity have the ability to learn the skills they need to survive in the wild. In fact, he conducted a small study with two young seal pups to see if they could learn to catch live fish and said that “they have a very strong instinct for fishing.”

He also noted that in the wild, mother seals stop caring for their pups after only two months, forcing them to become self-sufficient. As such, he believes that the best thing would be to release seal pups born at the zoo instead of euthanising them and also stated that it would be his preference to release the new seal pup into the wild this September.

Seals Gain Protected Status in Reykjavík

Seals are now protected within the Reykjavík City limits and the surrounding area. The next step is to ensure the protection status of seals in the general law, according to mammal ecologist Ester Rut Unnsteinsdóttir at The Icelandic Institute of Natural History, RÚV reports.

The Environment and Planning Committee of Reykjavík City approved a proposal to make seals protected within coastal areas surrounding Reykjavík, as well as near estuaries. All hunting of both common seals and grey seals will cease within the jurisdiction of the city. Reykjavík City’s website states it is necessary to improve the legal status of seals and to create a framework to control seal hunting. The decision doesn’t have a formal legal effect but is more of a statement of intent.

“We hope that more municipalities follow suit, but what matters most is to ensure that seals become legally protected, so they have adequate protection in Iceland,” said Ester Rut from the Icelandic Institute of Natural History.

The common seal is listed as an endangered species in Iceland while the grey seal is listed as vulnerable. The common seal (phoca vitulina) is a coastal animal, living closer to the shore, while the grey seal (halichoerus grypus) is an ocean-going seal. The common seal is sometimes named the speckled seal. The two species are considered among the most common seal species in the world. However, the species have faced tough times in Iceland in recent years. “We have no knowledge of why it’s happening, but there’s a clear reason to react,” said Ester. Further investigation needs to take place regarding the reduction of the seals. Common seal numbers have decreased by 77% in a 35-year timespan. In years past, they were hunted in considerable numbers but no major hunting has taken place in recent history.

“It might be bycatch that causes the reduction when they accidentally get caught by nets intended for other species. That type of hunting is relatively common but is most often not registered,” commented Ester.

Seals Listed Critically Endangered in Iceland

iceland fishing

The spotted seal is critically endangered in Iceland, according to the Icelandic Institute of Natural History’s newest Red List. RÚV reported first. Spotted seals numbered 7,600 in 2016, down from around 33,000 when monitoring of their stocks began in 1980. The animals’ numbers thus decreased around 77% over the 35-year period. If seal numbers continue to decrease at the same rate, they will decrease by 84% over the next 45 years, a time period of three generations for the animals.

The Institute states that spotted seals have very little protection in Iceland and further research is needed to know what is causing their numbers to drop. The decrease has been attributed to seals getting caught in fishing nets, as well as hunting. Though traditional seal hunting is rarely practiced in Iceland, seals are still hunted around estuaries in order to minimise their alleged impact on salmon stocks. Other factors which could affect seal numbers are food shortage, environmental changes, pollution, and disease.

Kristinn Haukur Skarphéðinsson, Head of Zoology at the Institute, says seal “deaths need to be reduced, whatever the causes,” adding that legislation protecting the animals is still “in the mid-19th century.”