On Monday, a senior Russian environmental official said that 2,500 or more seals were washed up dead on the shores of Russia. According to the official, oxygen deprivation was the likely cause of the mass deaths.
The seal corpses were found washed up along the coastline of the Caspian Sea in the Russian Republic of Dagestan. The Caspian is the world’s largest inland body of water.
Mass death of seals
The Natural Resources Ministry in Dagestan has posted periodic updates on the situation on social media. Earlier tallies initially had the number of dead seals at seven hundred but then changed this to 1,700. However, that number has continued to increase.
According to the latest announcement by the ministry on Telegram, unfortunately, the figure has grown significantly and currently stands at 2,500. Early autopsies conducted by the ministry suggested that the seals died of natural causes.
Countries bordering the Caspian Sea, including Kazakhstan, Russia, Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkmenistan, reported similar incidents earlier this year. However, the number of seals found dead over the weekend significantly surpassed earlier figures.
Svetlana Radionova of the natural resources watchdog agency Rosprirodnadzor spoke about the ecological incident on Russian state television. She said that hypoxia has been determined as the most likely cause.
Radionova said that scientists are investigating whether natural gas emissions in the Caspian could be causing low oxygen. She added that similar events involving the mass death of seals occurred in Dagestan and Azerbaijan in the year 2000. About two thousand seals had died in that particular incident.
Zaur Gapizov, the head of the Caspian Environmental Protection Center, also commented on the mass deaths. He said there were no signs the seals were deliberately killed or caught in fishing nets. Gapizov believes they probably died a few weeks ago.
However, Simon Goodman, an ecologist at the University of Leeds, has said that seals in the region are threatened by “human activities, including very high rates of seal mortality in fishing gear set for sturgeon poaching, and habitat degradation arising from coastal development.”
Seals in the Caspian, Russia
Caspian seals are a species unique to the region and are not found anywhere else in the world. They survive on a diet of mostly fish and crustaceans that varies based on the season and availability. They are the only marine mammals in the Caspian Sea.
An average adult is between 126 and 129 centimeters (50 to 51 inches) in length and can weigh up to 86 kilograms (190 pounds). The males tend to be bigger and heavier. They keep growing until about the age of thirty to forty, whereas the females mature more quickly.
Their population is between 270,000 to 300,000, according to estimates by Dagestan’s Natural Resources Ministry. Lower estimates have been given by other organizations. The Caspian Seal Project estimated that approximately one hundred thousand of them are now left.
Since 2008, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has listed seals as endangered on the Red List of Threatened Species. In 2021, the IUCN identified three areas in the Caspian Sea as “Important Marine Mammal Areas,” vital to the preservation of this endangered species.