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kazakhstan makes efforts to save the declining caspian seal population

Kazakhstan Makes Efforts to Save the Declining Caspian Seal Population

Author: Haley Nelson

Jun 20, 2023

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

The future of the Caspian Sea’s ecology is under threat as the declining shorelines degrade the habitats of Caspian Sea wildlife. As the Caspian Sea surface area continues to shrink, conservation efforts are necessary to protect not only the emerging economic importance of the region but also the life that inhabits the Caspian waters. 

on June 8, Kazakhstani government officials officially declared a state of emergency owing to the alarmingly dwindling water levels in the Caspian Sea. Highlighting the primary cause behind this critical decline, Zulfia Suleimenova, the Minister of Ecology, attributed it largely to diminished water inflows from the Volga and Ural rivers. Suleimenova added that without a constant flow of water from these rivers, the Caspian Sea will cease to exist. These low water levels have been attributed to a lack of snowfall in the winter months, increased water consumption due to energy production, manufacturing, and population growth, and an average temperature increase of one degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1979, leading to increased evaporation. Although the overall water level of the Caspian has fluctuated over the past few centuries, the acceleration of water fluctuations in the last century indicates a trend associated with global climate change. 

The Caspian Sea, at under 400,000 square km, is a weakly saline body of water. It has a shallow Northern basin, fed by the Ural and Volga rivers, that has salinity levels of fresh water, and a deeper middle and Southern basin, that has one-third of the ocean’s salinity. Water levels in the Caspian decreased by 7 centimeters (3 inches) per year from 1996 to 2015, about 1.5 meters (5 feet) total. The fluctuation of the Caspian Sea's water level can be primarily attributed to reduced inflows from the Volga River, which accounts for 80% of the total water inflow into the Caspian Sea, as well as heightened evaporation rates in the shallower areas of the sea. However, experts assert that the diminishing water levels demonstrate a stronger correlation with evaporation compared to other factors, including precipitation patterns and river drainage. A study conducted in 2017 concluded that roughly 50% of the water level decrease can be attributed to evaporation, while the remaining 50% is a combination of reduced precipitation and water inflows.

"Unless river discharge increases accordingly or precipitation in the Caspian drainage basin increases accordingly, the imbalance is likely to continue" said Anny Cazenave from France's space agency CNES. 

Alarming estimates put forth by officials suggest that by the end of the 21st century, Caspian Sea water levels could potentially decline by a staggering 18 meters, with the northern basin, where depths do not exceed 16 feet, facing the dire prospect of disappearing within the next 75 years. This severe environmental crisis has the potential to inflict irreparable harm upon the Caspian region's ecologically vital wildlife, threatening its delicate balance and biodiversity. 

The Caspian Sea shoreline retreat, having fallen by several meters since its peak in the mid-1990s, is threatening the fragile ecosystem and endemic species of the Caspian Region. If water declines further, there is a great threat to the biodiversity of the Caspian. Algal blooms, which thrive in warm shallow waters, will decrease oxygen levels of the sea, threatening marine life, which will thereby threaten the entire Caspian Sea ecosystem. Among the list of species facing catastrophic effects due to declining water levels is the endangered Caspian Seal, the mammal that sits at the top of the Caspian ecosystem pyramid. This warrants urgent attention and concerted efforts to mitigate the adverse effects and ensure the preservation of this invaluable marine habitat.

 

Caspian Seals are the only mammal to inhabit the Caspian Sea, and they are only found within the Caspian Region. They live on the shores of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, and Turkmenistan.  Once numbering an estimated one million at the onset of the 20th century, their population has faced a precipitous decline as the water levels of the Caspian Sea recede, resulting in a staggering reduction of approximately 90%. Presently, the estimated count of Caspian Seals hovers between 104,000 to 168,000, with declining birth rates observed year after year.

The diminishing population of Caspian Seals has led to their classification as an endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list since 2008. Moreover, their endangered status is also acknowledged in the Red Book's List of rare and endangered species within the Caspian countries of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Russia. Remarkably, the Caspian Seals face no natural predators as adults within their Caspian fauna ecosystem, yet their numbers continue to dwindle at an alarming rate.

The primary factor contributing to their population decline lies in their dependence on the existence of shallow waters within the northern basin of the Caspian Sea, where they breed during the winter months under the formation of ice sheets. However, rising average surface and water temperatures, coupled with the shrinking surface area of the shallower Caspian Sea waters, have significantly diminished the thickness, seasonal duration, and quality of sea ice. This adverse environmental shift has deprived the Caspian Seals of suitable ice cover necessary for their distribution and reproductive processes. As a result, these seals are compelled to seek refuge on land or inhabit other areas of the Caspian Sea, which introduces them to unsustainable living conditions, compromises their quality of life, and elevates the density of seal populations.

 Shrinkage of the Caspian Seal’s habitable zone may further drive them into fishing zones and waters tainted by oil and gas extraction. This could lead to increased rates of infertility among Caspian Seals, reduced availability of prey, and disruption within the broader food chain of the Caspian Sea. The cascading effects of these environmental transformations pose severe challenges to the long-term survival and well-being of the Caspian Seal population. Urgent and concerted action is essential to preserve this vulnerable species, safeguard their habitat, and restore the delicate ecological balance within the Caspian Sea. 

Source: Shutterstock

The severity of their declining population sparked great concern in December 2022, when over 2,500 Caspian Seals were found dead on the coast of Dagestan. Dagestan's Ministry of Natural Resources attributed these fatalities to "natural factors" and ruled out infectious diseases or the presence of fishing nets as contributing causes. Instead, the root of these deaths can be traced to the increasingly inhospitable ecosystem that has pushed the seals into polluted regions within the Caspian Sea.

Addressing this devastating crisis at the Sixth Caspian Summit in Ashgabat on June 29, 2022, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev emphasized the urgent need for action to safeguard the Caspian Seal population. He highlighted the joint effort undertaken by Kazakhstan and Russia through the signing of a five-year joint action plan for the conservation of these endangered seals. While protected areas have existed in Kazakhstan and Russia since 1974 in the northern part of the Caspian Sea, the efficacy of the measures taken thus far has proven insufficient to ensure the preservation of this red-listed animal. Consequently, the proposition to reformat the reserve zone into a specially protected natural area has been under consideration to provide enhanced conservation measures.

In alignment with this approach, the Kazakh Ministry of Ecology, Geology, and Natural Resources has unveiled plans to establish protected natural territories within the Northern Caspian Sea. The primary objective of these territories is to preserve the Caspian Seal population and safeguard their habitats, especially in light of the increasing utilization of the Middle Corridor transit route. The imposition of restrictions on vessels within these special natural territories becomes imperative to mitigate the direct threats posed to the seals' habitats. The ministry has announced its intention to finalize the establishment of this special natural zone by July 2024. Similarly, Iran has also announced its own plans for the protection of Caspian Seals, underscoring the shared commitment to preserve this vulnerable species.

However, it is imperative to recognize that while plans to restrict maritime traffic and fishing zones may be implemented, they can only address part of the multifaceted challenge. The most significant threat to the survival of this endangered species remains the diminishing surface area of the Caspian Sea itself. 

While a milestone was achieved with the signing of an agreement in 2018 by the five Caspian states to resolve longstanding border disputes pertaining to the Caspian maritime borders, the absence of robust inter-state cooperation on environmental matters has undermined the effectiveness of efforts aimed at safeguarding the Caspian Sea ecosystem. Furthermore, with the continuous retreat of the Caspian shorelines, there is a pressing need to reconsider the temporary maritime borders that were established in 2018.

Although Kazakhstan's declaration of a state of emergency on June 8 signifies a positive step in the right direction, the efforts made by the remaining four Caspian states have been inadequate or non-existent. In the absence of a regional consensus on ecological policies, the endeavor to protect the Caspian Seal faces substantial hindrances due to the fragmented legal framework governing the Caspian Sea.

The significance of the 2018 agreement that resolved the maritime border dispute should not be understated, as it lays the foundation for fostering broader collaboration among the Caspian states. However, it is crucial to expand this framework to encompass environmental cooperation, thereby establishing a united front to tackle the pressing threats faced by the Caspian Seal and the broader Caspian Sea ecosystem. By proactively engaging in the necessary negotiations and forging a regional consensus, the Caspian states can bridge the gaps in environmental policy and overcome the legal fragmentation that impedes effective conservation efforts.

The preservation of the Caspian Seal and the ecological integrity of the Caspian Sea demand collective action and shared responsibility. Only through sustained inter-state cooperation, guided by a comprehensive ecological policy framework, can the Caspian states effectively address the challenges posed by the declining Caspian Sea surface area and secure a sustainable future for this endangered species.


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