The ringed seal has been a mainstay in the diet of native Arctic peoples. Its meat is consumed by people and fed to sled dogs, while its skin is used for clothing. This subsistence hunting continues at unknown levels to this day, but many tens of thousands of seals are thought to be killed each year (3). Commercial hunting has also been widespread. Harvesting for the ringed seal’s pelt peaked in the mid-20th century, when it caused localised declines at southern latitudes, including in the Baltic and Okhotsk Seas. However, harvesting pressure on the ringed seal is now thought to be much less significant (1).
Other threats to the ringed seal include pollution, entanglement in fishing nets and disturbance (1) (2) (3). Pollution is a particularly significant threat in the Baltic Sea, as well as in Lake Saimaa, where mercury pollution from lake-side developments is thought to be contributing to poor breeding success and an ongoing population decline of the Saimaa seal (8). Between 200 and 400 Ladoga seals are thought to die each year as a result of entanglement in fishing nets (8).
However, the greatest threat to the ringed seal is climate change. The ringed seal is dependant upon ice habitat at many stages in its life cycle. Both ice and snow must be stable enough during spring to enable female ringed seals to raise their pups in lairs. But as the Arctic ice continues to melt each year and ice breaks up sooner, more pups may become separated from their mothers prematurely, increasing the risk of exposure and predation. Furthermore, spring rains and warm spring temperatures can also cause the roofs of lairs to collapse, resulting in similar effects (4).
In addition, as Arctic conditions warm, previously inaccessible areas will open up to humans, meaning activities such as shipping and oil exploration will become a more frequent disturbance. This will degrade habitats, while increased fishing activities may reduce fish availability for the ringed seal. Warmer temperatures may also make conditions more favourable for ringed seal parasites and pathogens, as well as reduce the seal’s immunity to these natural threats, due to increased stress from a changing environment (4).