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Harkonen T.,Swedish Museum of Natural History | Harding K.C.,Gothenburg University | Wilson S.,Tara Seal Research Center | Baimukanov M.,Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology | And 3 more authors.
PLoS ONE | Year: 2012

Understanding historical roles of species in ecosystems can be crucial for assessing long term human impacts on environments, providing context for management or restoration objectives, and making conservation evaluations of species status. In most cases limited historical abundance data impedes quantitative investigations, but harvested species may have long-term data accessible from hunting records. Here we make use of annual hunting records for Caspian seals (Pusa caspica) dating back to the mid-19th century, and current census data from aerial surveys, to reconstruct historical abundance using a hind-casting model. We estimate the minimum numbers of seals in 1867 to have been 1-1.6 million, but the population declined by at least 90% to around 100,000 individuals by 2005, primarily due to unsustainable hunting throughout the 20th century. This collapse is part of a broader picture of catastrophic ecological change in the Caspian over the 20th Century. Our results combined with fisheries data show that the current biomass of top predators in the Caspian is much reduced compared to historical conditions. The potential for the Caspian and other similar perturbed ecosystems to sustain natural resources of much greater biological and economic value than at present depends on the extent to which a number of anthropogenic impacts can be harnessed. © 2012 Harkonen et al.

Dmitrieva L.,University of Leeds | Kondakov A.A.,Russian Academy of Sciences | Oleynikov E.,Russian Academy of Sciences | Kydyrmanov A.,Institute of Microbiology and Virology | And 5 more authors.
PLoS ONE | Year: 2013

The Caspian seal (Pusa caspica) has declined by more than 90% since 1900 and is listed as endangered by IUCN. We made the first quantitative assessment of Caspian seal by-catch mortality in fisheries in the north Caspian Sea by conducting semi-structured interviews in fishing communities along the coasts of Russia (Kalmykia, Dagestan), Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. We recorded a documented minimum by-catch of 1,215 seals in the survey sample, for the 2008-2009 fishing season, 93% of which occurred in illegal sturgeon fisheries. Due to the illegal nature of the fishery, accurately quantifying total fishing effort is problematic and the survey sample could reflect less than 10% of poaching activity in the north Caspian Sea. Therefore total annual by-catch may be significantly greater than the minimum documented by the survey. The presence of high by-catch rates was supported independently by evidence of net entanglement from seal carcasses, during a mass stranding on the Kazakh coast in May 2009, where 30 of 312 carcasses were entangled in large mesh sturgeon net remnants. The documented minimum by-catch may account for 5 to 19% of annual pup production. Sturgeon poaching therefore not only represents a serious threat to Caspian sturgeon populations, but may also be having broader impacts on the Caspian Sea ecosystem by contributing to a decline in one of the ecosystem's key predators. This study demonstrates the utility of interview-based approaches in providing rapid assessments of by-catch in illegal small-scale fisheries, which are not amenable to study by other methods. © 2013 Dmitrieva et al.

Dmitrieva L.,University of Leeds | Harkonen T.,Swedish Museum of Natural History | Baimukanov M.,Institute of Hydrobiology and Ecology | Bignert A.,Swedish Museum of Natural History | And 7 more authors.
Endangered Species Research | Year: 2015

Assessing species abundance and reproductive output is crucial for evaluations of population dynamics, conservation status and the development of management objectives. The Caspian seal Pusa caspica is a key predator in the Caspian Sea ecosystem and is listed as Endangered by the IUCN. Here we report on fixed-wing aerial strip transect surveys of the breeding population on the Caspian Sea winter ice field carried out in February, 2005-2012. Potential detection biases were estimated by applying a Petersen mark-recapture estimator to the counts from double photographic observations. We also tested for effects of weather conditions on count results, and for correlations between pup production and ice conditions and net primary productivity (npp). Fluctuations in pup production estimates were observed among years, ranging from 8200 pups (95% CI: 7130-9342) in 2010 to 34 000 (95% CI: 31 275-36 814) in 2005. Total adults on the ice ranged from 14 500 in 2010 to 66 300 in 2012. We did not detect significant associations between pup production and either ice summary data (ice season length and ice area) or npp. The observed inter-year variation may be partly due to underlying biological drivers influencing the fecundity of the population, although measurement errors arising from observation bias, plus variation in survey timing and weather conditions may also have contributed. Identifying the potential drivers of Caspian seal population dynamics will require extending both the survey time series and the quality of supporting data. However, inter-year fluctuations should still cause concern that the population may be vulnerable to environmental variability and ecosystem dynamics.

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