Ringed Seals (Pusa Hispida) get there name from the ring like markings on their fur and there are 5 subspecies to inhabit the ice. It is this species which is most targeted by subsistence hunters. However, many of these subsistence hunters have in turn become commercial hunters and a group of Inuits are seeking to over-turn a section of the US Marine Mammal Protection Act which prohibits the import of skins from Canada. These seals are particularly vulnerable to climate change and pollution. In 1998, a rise in toxic pollutants was recorded with radioactive arctic dumps used by the Soviet Union during the 1960’s causing radiation levels 100x higher than normal. More recently, scientists have warned that seals with damaged flippers and hair loss are being killed by radiation caused by the Fukushima disaster.
As autumn will shift towards winter and the ice freezes over, Arctic Ringed seals start working on creating and maintaining breathing holes. These holes are dug out of the ice with their powerful claws and may be up to 2m in depth. As Winter moves to spring, they then establish lairs under the snow that has fallen around the breathing holes. These lairs protect the seals, not only from the extreme temperatures, but also from Polar Bears.
Aside from Polar Bears, these seals are preyed upon by sharks, killer whales and even Walruses.
Like the Ribbon Seal, pups are born with a whitish coat which is shed when they are around a month and a half old. Initially the new coat will only have a few spots, but these increase in number as the animal matures, particularly so on its back.
The mothers will nurse their young for the first 4-6 weeks, during which stage they will go off on regular foraging trips. Despite regular foraging, female ringed seals lose around .5kg per day while nursing. Not much is known about their mating habits though and it is presumed to take place in the lairs during mid May. Pups weigh in at just over 4kg’s at birth and measure around 60cm in length.
As can be seen from the table above, these seals put on weight at a phenomenal rate. Females reach sexual maturity at between 4-8 years, males between 5-7 years. They can live to a ripe old age of over 43.
Marine pollution, toxic chemicals, arsenic contamination and heavy metals found in the Baltic Sea have been blamed for increased disease as well as sterility in female ringed seals. A large number of these seals also drown or suffer from entanglement complications due to commercial fisheries nets.
The Baltic Ringed Seal (+/- 10 000 remaining) as well as the Lake Ladoga Ringed seal (2 000 remaining) are listed as ‘Vulnerable” by the IUCN. The Lake Saimaa Ringed Seal (250 remaining) is listed as ‘Critically Endangered’ and the Okhotsk Ringed Seal is listed as ‘Data Deficient.’
At the turn of the century, there were an estimated 180 000 ringed seals in the Baltic Sea. By the 1940’s, commercial sealing and pollution had reduced their number to less than 25 000. The Helsinki Commission (HELCOM) banned hunting in the Baltic altogether in 1988, though pressure from Finland and Sweden are seeking to have this overturned. (even though their numbers are only around 10 000)
The Inuits know this seal as “Netsik” and others may refer to it as a “Jar Seal.”