|Origin & Development|
|History of Lake Baikal|
|Lake Baikal Climate|
|Fauna & Vegetation|
|Water of Lake Baikal|
|People of Lake Baikal|
|Lake Baikal Seals - NERPA|
"The Face of Baikal - Nerpa" - research work by Vladimir D. Pastukhov ©
binoculars it could be seen that the animals were
lying in various poses - on their stomach, on their sides, on their backs, - tranquilly
enjoying the autumn sunshine. Only a few of them, the more alert, would lift their heads
and take a look around. A light breeze brought dogs'barking from off the shore, the
singing of cockerels, and human speech, but the animals paid not the slightest attention
to this. Nothing was worrying them!
||I first saw a nerpa in Proval Bay in 1959, that very same bay that came about as the result
of a catastrophic earthquake on a night just before the New Year of 1862. Our boat, the
"Academician V. A.Obruchev" was drifting 1.5 kilometres from the settlement of Oimur: we
were taking samples of water plants. It was early autumn and the inner part of the bay was
iced over. In front of us on the edge of the ice a small chain was visible - the home of the Baikal
This mass of large bodies on the ice, the inhabitants of Baikal's great body of water,
bewitched me, and I made further observations of nerpa later - in November, December,
and January... over the period when ice forms on the lake. All these observations were
set down in my first scientific article, and the topic of the nerpa was confirmed for
me, as biologist and hunting specialist, at the Limnological Institute. A long time has
passed since then. I have published books and scientific articles and defended two
dissertations. Between 1961 and 2005 some 100 expeditions were undertaken, in boats and
launches on water, in cars, on motorcycles, horsedrawn sledges and on foot over Baikal's
ice. Now I can say that our knowledge of the Baikal nerpa has much increased...
The Baikal nerpa - Phoca sibirica - is a representative of the order of pinnipeds and
family of real (earless) seal. The genus of the nerpa also includes the Caspian seal
and northern ring seal. Apart from Baikal and the Caspian Sea; nerpa inhabit the seas of
cold and temperate belts of all oceans except the Indian.
When one first encounters a nerpa the question of its age is the first to arise. What is
this before you - a young nerpa, an adult or an old one? There are three methods of
determining the age of mammals: according to the yearly segments of claws, dentine (the
substance of teeth) and tooth cement. One can only tell the age of seals not more than 6
years of age by the claws, as they are very quickly worn down. Dentine can be used to
determine age only between 15 and 17 years. Only the method based on the cement layers
in the root part of the fangs gives a true picture throughout the seal's life. Yearly
growth in the cement occurs on the outside of the tooth roots. Under a microscope it is
possible to see light and dark rings on thin cross sections of the fangs which are
softened in nitric acid then coloured with a special dye. This tooth layer method of
assessing age is similar to that used for trees according to annual rings.
It turns out that the Baikal seal is peculiar amongst
seals for its long life span, the maximum age of the female being 56, and of the male
- 52 years. The maximum age of the Caspian seal is 50 years, and all other seal
considerably less. The 'ecological' age (99% of the numbers) of the Baikal nerpa is
around 30 years, some 1,5 - 2 times more than other seals.
Why, indeed, does one need to know the age of animals? The value and significance this
knowledge is that it enables one to achieve an objective estimation of such things as
the age sex structure of a herd, speed of reproduction, the role of the females of
different ages in the production of young, to give an assessment of the numbers of the
general population according to the size of a litter, of mortality and survival rates,
and of movements of population numbers, to make analyses of growth in weight and length,
and calculate the biomass and production. The age structure of a herd, considered over
a period of time, enables one to monitor population dynamics, make prognoses of changes
in population numbers and make corrections in it.
A nerpa herd has a complex mixed age structure. On average
animals aged of from 1 to 9 years make up the greater part of the herd, some 79%, 10 -
19 year old nerpa make up 17%, 20 - 29 year old nerpa - 3%, 30 - 39 year old nerpa 0.88%,
and 40 - 49 year old nerpa - 0.25%, and only 0.12% of the herd is comprised of those
over 50. Of the main reserve of adults (excluding pups) there are about the same numbers
of sexually immature seal as mature. In all age groups of nerpa over the last 30 years
the females have dominated, making up on average 58% of the population. The average life
span of the female is longer than the male's. Over the same period of study, in the 1 -
9 years age group 50% were female, of the 20-29 year old nerpa 60%, and of those of 40
and over - 75%.
to come right up to them and take them with their
bare hands. If there is still sunny weather at this time with high atmospheric
temperatures (up to +20°C), the death of such creatures from overheating in the sun
is inevitable. That death is caused in this way is born out by the fact that the fat
under the animals'skin is an orangy-yellow colour due to expansion of the blood
vessels. A similar situation was registered when, because of a breakdown in equipment
at the nerparium of the Limnological Institute, warm water (about +30°C) began
entering the pool containing nerpa. The dead nerpa had similar orangy-yellow fat under
its skin as a result of the overheating. For every thousand seal caught in the spring
boat hunt, hunters find 10 - 15 male nerpa dead as a result of this overheating. If
this is considered in terms of the population as a whole such a death rate would not
seem to be very high, some 1%, but if one bears in mind that this concerns only the
males and takes into consideration the mixed age structure of the herd, then over a few
years the damage to the head of males can be quite noticeable, and this is reflected in
the disparity in numbers of males to females in older age groups. However, the enviable
constancy in the slight dominance of the females over the males on the whole can be
seen as a good sign not only for the population, but also for humans using the resources
of this animal.
||Adult males make up all the known cases of natural death of nerpa on the spring ice.
One of the reasons for this higher mortality amongst adult males is thought to be
overheating in the sun. The males, having spent a lot of strength on the April mating
season, then beginning to moult, become so weak that they can lie on the spring ice,
without entering the water or feeding, for a few days on end. Sometimes, some animals
become very weak and allow people|
size. In one and a half month's time, at the
beginning of May, having had their first moult, but still remaining on a milk diet,
the pups reach a length of 87 - 88cm, and their body weight rises to 20 - 22kg. After
another month, at the beginning of June, the pups, having become independent of their
mothers, reach 89 - 91cm in length, while their weight is no more than 20kg. By the
end of their lives as pups, the nerpa' size increases by 34% and weight five times.
The high speed of growth of Baikal nerpa pups is closely linked to the duration of milk
feeding, which lasts twice as long as that of other seals. This 'extra' month of milk
feeding has a favourable effect on the entire process of the animals' development,
including its sexual maturation. The sharp fall in the rate of growth and gain in weight
takes place not during the period of sexual maturation, but 2 - 2,5 months after birth,
when there is a dramatic change in feeding habits connected with the transition to
independent hunting for food.
||The females give birth to their offspring in March.
The sizes and weight of the newborn male and female pups are almost identical. The
male's zoological length (from the nose to the end of the tail following all the body
contours) at this time is 66cm, and its body weight 4.2 kg, while of the female 64 cm
and 4.0 respectively, the weight of the newly born nerpa pups is equal to 8% of the
weight of the females giving birth for the first time and 5% of the weight of
females of full|
Growth in the nerpa's length ceases by 20 - 25 years of age and the animals become
physically mature. The males gain more body mass in the first year than the females,
however, from one year to four years of age the females grow more rapidly and become
sexually mature sooner. From the age of five, the males grow more rapidly and this is
maintained until the age of 15 - 17, after which and until 27 - 28 both the males and
females undergo identical reduction in growth until they stop growing completely. The
average annual weight of the nerpa is around 46kg, which is close to the weight of the
five-year-old animal. The maximum weight of 145kg in males, and 124kg in females, is
reached in the autumn.
Amongst animals of the same age considerable changes in size and weight take place
between the spring and autumn. A gain in body mass is particularly marked between the
spring (minimum) and autumn (maximum) in year old animals. 42% in females and 38% in
males. Adult males noticeably gain more weight from spring to autumn and also lose it
from autumn to spring than adult females. This is due to their different physiological
states, reproduction and feeding habits. These seasonal fluctuations in mass in sexually
immature males are 2 - 3 times less than in adults. Large weight fluctuations are found
in females giving birth for the first time at the ages of 4 - 7 years. Adult females
spend their strength more economically, feeding more or less regularly throughout the
year, and changing in mass from season to season one and a half times less than adult
The gain and loss in weight happens not only at the expense of fat, but also at the
expense of muscles and internal organs.
||Let's take a brief look at the nutritional state of the nerpa. That is to the ratio of
the weight of fat on the skin to general body weight. This indicator of the nutritional
state of pups is at its height both in spring (62 - 64%) and in autumn (54%), which is
due to the long period of milk feeding and build up of fat at this time. After the first
year the nutritional state of females (52 - 53%) is constantly higher than that of males
Females reach potential maturity between the ages of 2 - 7, though in fact they do not
take part in the process of reproduction. Productive maturity (during which period
mating and consequent pregnancy occurs) begins a year later; they first give birth at
the age of from 4 to 9 years. The female Baikal nerpa are noticeably quicker to mature
than females of their closest kin, the Caspian and ring seal, beginning their
reproductive life on average some two years earlier. Surprisingly, females are able to
give birth up to 43 - 45 years of age. For aquatic mammals this discovery was made for
the first time.
After mating fresh, clear scratch marks from the males' claws can be seen on the back
and sides of some females. At other times of the year such scratches have not been
observed. In the first weeks of April the nerpa's bellowing can be heard frequently
from under the ice. These peculiar calls, which are not heard at other times of year,
are given out by both males and females in the evening twilight time. At the end of March
and the beginning of April, during excavations of seal dens with females feeding
their pups, a sharp, lasting, musk smell, belonging only to sexually mature males,
called 'argals', can be detected. From this one can conclude that the den, oral least
its blowholes, has already been visited by males. Earlier on, in February or March,
marking with the male smell of the dens of females with pups has never been noted.
It is not only the males that are active during the mating season, but the females
as well, as the following observation indicates: on the 14th of April, 1963, 20 -
30km to the north of the Ushkanye Islands I stalked up to shoot towards a small den
(7 animals) of adult male and female seal. With experience it is not difficult to make
out males from females at a distance of 50 - 70 metres by the wrinkled face and shape
of the body. I took aim at a large, well-fed female of nineteen years of age (as it
later turned out). When the body had been measured and cut up, I noted that the
animal's milk glands were full of fresh milk, that is, it was a feeding mother. And
although everywhere, even the smallest ice hummock, within a radius of 400 metres of
her body was checked, no rookery with a pup could be found. As dissection of the body
showed, the female was already pregnant. It is therefore possible to conclude that it
is not always the male that takes the initiative in seeking a partner, and that a
feeding mother can leave its rookery for, apparently, a considerable period of time,
and go a good distance to mate.
The Baikal nerpa male is not monogamous. Appearing at
the blow holes of female dens during the mating season (April), they later disappear
quickly to live alone on even, untouched stretches of ice. They take no part in the
upbringing of the pups. Moreover, during the mating season, some pups desiring to be
closer to their mothers get a good hammering from the males, as can be seen from the
scratches and wounds on the pups' skin left by their claws and, more rarely, teeth.
The nerpa males lead limited polygamous lives: in favourable circumstances, during
the mating season a male can have a few female partners.
leads to the conclusion that the males are
polygamous. The peculiar distribution over the lake of adult males and females during
the period of ice cover is, to a considerable degree, due to the physiological state
and different requirements of the two at this time of year. Icing over begins from the
eastern shore and pregnant females try to keep close to the ice, seeking out in advance
the most appropriate hummock sections to turn into a den. The males, on the other hand
keep to the areas free of ice, continuing the fattening up period. By the time the lake
has completely iced over, a differentiation in distribution of males and females has
been brought about. I have the impression that the older, "wiser" and more experienced
males remain with the females on the eastern side of the lake. And it is this cohort of
males that plays the main role in the reproduction of offspring. It is more than likely
that many males from the western part of the lake fail to find themselves a mating
partner all together.
||Observations in April and May show that the eastern half of Baikal, where the main part
of the female population gathers, is always occupied by 3 - 4 times fewer adult males.
If a male had only one mating partner in a season, annual barrenness amongst females
would be around 50 - 75%, which, however, is not the case. The fact that the majority
of males spend the winter on the western half of the lake, and females in the eastern
part, but nevertheless become pregnant,|
The males come to sexual maturity at the age of 7 - 10 years, 2 - 3 years after the
So, the Baikal nerpa's mating season takes place not, as it was previously thought, in
June - July, but in April a month after the birth of the pups and a month before the
moult. It occurs when the females are milk feeding their young and this is not an
obstacle to its success. Mating takes place under the ice in the water near the blow
holes, and not on the ice.
In July, observation of the adult seals' behaviour in water not far from their summer
shore dens shows that at this time there are different, more intimate relations between
the males and females, than, for example, during the moult (end of May - beginning of
June) or in the autumn when the animals are indifferent to each other. In July, they
can be seen in pairs or even groups of 3 or 4, swimming away from each other then
coming together again, following each other. It has been observed, though rarely, that
after a chase one seal will 'drown' another, which gave local people the impression
that this unusual play was, in fact, mating. However, it is not without foundation to
see similarities in this behaviour of adult seals with the pseudo mating of, for
example, sable. After the moult and fattening up time the seal arc in such a condition
that hormonal activity of the sex organs make them imitate and even enact coupling. But
nothing ever happens 'just like that'. The pseudo mating must have and does have its
purpose. The pseudo chase is the trigger mechanism stimulating the female reproductive
organs. It possibly indicates the period of the first mating season of the nerpa's
Differing opinions on the period of the birth of the pups, arising from the fact that
in the past scientists used only the descriptions of local inhabitants, forced me to
undertake special expeditions to find and study the dens of females with pups. This was
done with the help of 'laika' hunting dogs. It turned out that the period when nerpa
gives birth to pups lasts for 40 days from the end of February till early April, with a
peak from the 7th to the 20th of March. Females giving birth meet in the central part
of the lake, avoiding the shore. Their dens are usually situated hundreds of metres and
sometimes even kilometres from each other. The dens of females giving birth are not
arranged in clusters.
The pups remain in the den for from one to one and a half months not emerging until the
surface layer of snow on the den (the roof) collapses because of the spring heat and
activities of the animals themselves. During this time the pups go through their first
temperature of the air in the den is nearly 0°C. When the
mother stays in the den for some time, the temperature rises to +4 +5°C, while
outside there are temperatures of -15 to -20°C. A den with a newly born pup will
have a network of pathways - burrows in the snow around the main chamber made by the
pup itself. A nerpa pup's "work" starts soon after birth and goes on for from 20 to 30
days. Using now one, now the other fore flipper, the pup gets into the wall of the den,
making a labyrinth of tunnels.
||Seals make their dens by ice hummocks in those places with thick layers of snow that
let minimum amounts of solar radiation through the ice, A den is a semi-oval snow nest,
sometimes quite long (up to 5 m) and wide (up to 2,7 m), with its own peculiar
microclimate protecting the pups from cold, wind and feathered predators. In the centre
or more often towards the edge of the den is a blow hole through to the water. It cannot
be seen from outside. The|
Once a captive two-day-old nerpa pup was put into an
artificially constructed den. Within one minute it had dug one-third of its length into
the snow wall and in eight hours had made a tunnel 1,5 metres long. It would appear
that the pup wants to tunnel through the snow wall and get out. But this is not the
reason. As soon as it sees that the wall of the den is becoming thin and is beginning
to let through a lot of light, it slops the digging of the tunnel. If a nerpa pup is
put out on bare ice, it will start wriggling and seeking a shadowy place, pressing up
to the legs of humans. If you start walking away, it will follow. Under bright sunlight
abundant tears form in the pups eyes. In its helplessness, the pup resembles a child in
tears and arouses our compassion.
Pups very seldom appear on the ice. Once in March we were investigating some tens of
dens, only one of which had been destroyed, apparently, by careless movements of the
pup in tunnelling near a thin wall. It had come out into the open, where, judging by
the tracks and remains, a tragedy was enacted. The well-fed 7 - 9 day old pup at the
beginning of the moult was found by a black crow and was not able to crawl back into
its den in time: the crow had pecked out its eyes and peeked through its skull.
of heat. The pups, called in
Russian 'belyak', plural - 'belki', caught in water and released onto the ice, even at
an atmospheric temperature of 0°C, shiver all over. The exercise the pups have
while borrowing tunnels in their dens is quite justified. The need for movement is
innate in nerpa pups: captive 1 - 2 day-old pups kept in an expedition hut began to
scratch the walls so vigorously with their claws that no one could get any sleep!
||The reason why nerpa pups make tunnels is that its skin itches because of the moult
from its white new-born fur to its silver-grey pup fur, and also because by now it has
picked up a mass of parasitic lice from its mother. Besides, the growing pups have a
great need for movement. In the first 2 - 3 weeks the new born pups do not enter the
water, as they have not as yet built up sufficient fat or finished moulting, and
movement in the water does not compensate for loss|
Amongst pinnipeds (animals with flippers), the Baikal nerpa is singular for its ability
to give birth to more than one pup: some 2% of the females give birth to and successfully
Nerpa feed their young for from two to two-and-a-half months, some mothers continue for
three to three-and-a-half months, which is 2 - 3,5 times as long as kindred species. It
has been found that there is a direct link between the period of feeding and the state
of the ice cover and break up of the ice on Baikal.
The nerpa has an instinct to care for its young. If a den is destroyed for some reason,
a mother will drag its pup under water in its flippers or teeth to another more secure
place, often making another den. This mother's instinct is also expressed in its
excavation of extra blow holes in the ice where the animals can come up for air. The
mother gets its pup used to food, bringing golomyanka, long-tinned gobies, and shrimps
into the den. Under its mother's watchful eye, a pup begins to find food for itself in
the top layers of water.
I remember an amusing and curious incident that I and my assistants, A.Malygin, a hunter,
and S.Shalashov, my lab assistant, once witnessed. The hunter, having dug a hole in a
nerpa den and stuck his head through it, peered into a blow hole hoping to see and catch
a pup. Suddenly he leapt backwards and ran away from the den. It turned out that the
water in the blow hole had rushed up to the edge and a nerpa's head with a pup in its
mouth had risen up suddenly under the hunter's nose. Both the animal and the man,
frightened by the unexpectedness of the moment, reeled back.
My lab assistant was watching nerpa twins through a blow hole. The mother held one of
the pups in its teeth, while the other swam around the lower edge of the hole trying to
swim up to the surface of the water which its mother was preventing by swimming before
its nose. Twice she tried to make the pup follow her by her movements, but the pup was
paying not attention to her and stubbornly tried to jump out through the blow hole. The
third time she swam up to her disobedient pup and clouted it on the head, throwing it
under the ice with her flipper. After this, the animals disappeared. Two days later when
we visited this den we found it abandoned and frozen over. Our twins, however, were
discovered in the same flight of hummocks about a hundred metres from their original den.
The mother had removed the twins to her escape hole.
The moult is a very important stage in the life of a nerpa. The entire animal organism
takes part in the complex physiological process linked with moulting. Large amounts of
vitamins and minerals arc expended and protein metabolism increases. The fat layer built
up during the autumn and winter is reduced radically during the moult. For days on end
the animals do not feed. From a year old and on, nerpa moults in the spring on melting
ice floes in the period from 15th May till the 10th of June. Faded old hair of a
reddish-brown colour falls out and is replaced by bright dark grey fresh hair. The pups,
whose white birth coat changes to an iridescent silvery-grey, look particularly elegant.
The pups moult in April, and it is their fur that provides high quality raw material for
the fur trade of which they are the object.
and forced into the water frequently, the moult is held up
dramatically. This was easy to observe with nerpa in captivity in the nerparium.
Abnormal, long drawn out moulting has a negative effect on the intensity of summer
mating, as the nerpa's predominating need is not for food but for long period in the
air and on a firm substrate. A vivid illustration of this was the natural 'experiment'
that took place in 1981, when Baikal became free of ice very early and the nerpa was
unable to moult in time on the ice floes. The moult dragged out over months and
barrenness reached a peak of 63% that year, five times higher than usual, which led to
a sharp decline in replenishment of the herd the following year. 1981, so unusual for
the nerpa, showed the existence of a direct connection between reproduction and
moulting. A short, intense moult and timely beginning of summer mating make for high
reproduction. It took twenty years of constant observation of the state of the herd of
Baikal nerpa to disclose an important biological feature: the dependence of the nerpa's
reproduction on the hydroclimatic conditions of Baikal in the spring and on the
character of the moult.
||Sometimes it happens that females remain barren. Some
adult females, that have already given birth to pups, in one particular year are
incapable of reproduction. The main reason for this state of barrenness in the Baikal
nerpa is an incomplete moult, especially in years when Baikal becomes free of ice
earlier than usual. The moult takes place on the last ice floes of spring in favourable
thermal and light atmospheric conditions. If the animals are disturbed|
It seems very much to the point to mention here the discovery made by my son, Mikhail,
on one expedition when he collected nerpa claws, from the nerpa killed in the hunt, for
his dissertation studies. It turned out that in the majority of nerpa the 1981 annual
segment was the smallest. The claws are a derivative of the skin-hair cover and it is
easy to 'read' in them how the moult went in one year or another. Material collected
over thirty years enabled us to juxtapose many biological indicators (moulting, mating,
reproduction and barrenness) and find a link between the size of segments of claws and
the period of the break up of the ice on the lake. The claw criterion turned out to be
a very important, reliable and not very laborious means of assessing the general state
of the nerpa population. The claws became that 'wizard's wand' with which one can open
the door not only to the past but also to the future; that is to carry out both a
retrospective and prognostic description of the reproduction of the nerpa herd. The
small size of the segment speaks of incomplete moulting mass migration of the animals
towards the shore to their dens, and poaching. All this leads to a sharp decline in
offspring the following year because of the high incidence of barrenness. As a
consequence, corrections have to be made to the permitted level of hunting the following
year and their effective protection must be organized at the summer shore dens. Claw
analysis permits us to forecast the reproduction of the population a few years in
advance: the period of maturation of a generation being the minimum. Moreover, the study
of over 20,000 claw segments collected from nerpa killed in the hunt from 1961 till 1985
enabled us to discover a 10 - 11 year cycle in the state of the population which
corresponds to the cycle of solar activity. Years of heightened solar activity are
unfavourable for the ice-loving Baikal species of nerpa.
Comparison of the period of mating with the birth of pups has shown that pregnancy lasts
not for nine months as had been supposed earlier but for eleven months.
One mysterious feature characteristic of all seal is the phenomenon of delayed
development in the embryo, scientifically known as the embryonic diapause. In the rare
year of 1981, as has already been said, there were many barren females which meant that
the birth rate the following year, 1982, was low. By contrast, 1983 saw an abundance
of twins. The number of females giving birth to twin pups doubled, making up 4% of all
those that gave birth. This incredible phenomenon, delayed development of the embryo,
is directed towards natural maintenance of the population.
years was on average 23%, and the
relative numbers of offspring in the population was 19%. Over the years 1961 - 1980,
despite the seal hunting industry, the numbers of the population rose with an average
annual rate of 1.3%, but from 1981 - 1985, because of the industry and especially as a
result of the critical (for low reproduction) year, 1982, a loss at the rate of 1.9% a
year in the population was observed. So, with the purpose of making timely corrections
in the numbers of head assigned to the industry, the importance of regular monitoring
of the main population indicators has become obvious.
||On average over a 25 year period (1961 - 1985) observations of four-year-old female
nerpa only 12% gave birth to pups, of five-year-olds - 48%, amongst six-year-olds - 68%,
and amongst those of seven years and older 84%. Over this period the birth rate amongst
mature females fell. The reason for this is the impact of increased (4 - 6 times)
selective killing of the early born moulted pups caused by the emphasis within the
industry on furs. The rate of reproduction over these|
In the period of complete ice cover (January - May) all three basins of the lake are
occupied by nerpa with more or less identical intensity. A higher concentration is found
only in the most deep water parts of Central Baikal and the central zone of each of the
The short period (in the second half of May and June) of ice break up is marked by
considerable re-groupings and migrations of the seal from south to north. Nerpa come
out onto the ice at this time in large numbers. In the first ten days of June from a
half to 2/3 of the total head of seals gather on the ice in North Baikal. Here
both locals and newcomers from the south gather in colonies. In those years when great
ice floes are swept by winds towards the northeastern end or towards the eastern
shores, the colonies arc large - some 1000 - 3000 head. All nerpa prefer the firm
white ice and avoid the black unstable 'needle' ice - 'thin ice'.
The distribution of nerpa over the lake depends on
conditions of food and defence, and also at certain times of the year the need for a
hard substrate (ice, shore rocks). From the beginning of January till mid May, nerpa
occupy less than half Baikal's surface, mostly in deep water areas. In North Baikal at
this time adults dominate, while sexually immature seal stay in the more southerly
parts. Most seal spend the winter alone, scattered one from another by hundreds
of metres and even kilometres. They use a system of
individual blow holes where they can come up for air during their movements under the
ice. By scattering in this way, the nerpa ensures food for itself throughout the winter.
Out in the lake's deep waters the fish that makes up the main part of its biomass are
found, the big and lesser golomyanka. These fish, although they do not swim in schools,
make daily vertical migrations.
+18 +20°C) in the shallows of bays or
delta areas of large rivers. This is both because of the higher water temperature, and
because of the absence of their food, the golomyanka, in these areas. Only 15% of the
population inhabit the three kilometre wide coastal zone in the summer, these are mainly
young animals, while the rest live in the open, deep parts of Baikal. On average nerpa
frequent the eastern half of the lake twice as much as the western parts. This is due to
the fact that there is less human interference on the eastern side and its waters are
more biologically productive.
||When Baikal becomes free of ice, the nerpa begins an intensive mating period. All
previous investigators of the nerpa connected its summer distribution exclusively with
its shore dens. But this is not the case. Even in those rare years when the nerpa is not
able to complete its moult on the ice floes, no more than 10% come out onto shore dens.
In normal years only 0.1% climb out onto the rocks. In summer nerpa are most scattered.
They do not frequent warmer waters (up to|
The largest of the nerpa rookeries (or dens) on the Ushkanye Islands left a particular
impression on me in June, 1981. From 1.5 to 1.6 thousand nerpa had arranged themselves
on the east and north-east sides, on the shore of the island Dlinny Ushkanchik, and on
rocks sticking out of the water. Above all my hearing was stunned by the quiet noise
coming over from the rookery. Some nerpa were coming out of the water and, shaking their
bodies, climbing up onto the rocks. Others were falling from the rocks into the water
with mighty splashes, popping up nearby and sticking their curious heads out of the
water to try once again to win a place on the rocks. Some snorted while others drew in
long deep breaths through their noses with a loud whistle. Everywhere was the snorting
of discontented animals, not wanting to shift and give up their places.
From mid October, from the time when the waters of the shallows cool, nerpa begin to
make moves towards the first 'factories' of ice-in the Proval, Chivyrkuisky, and
Barguzine bays and in the areas near the deltas of the Selenga and Verkhnaya Angara.
As the ice fields form, so the movement of the nerpa increases, reaching a maximum in
the first half of November. Some third or half the nerpa herd migrate to these parts.
One of the reason for this migration to the bays and shallows is for a 'course' of
"self-treatment". Here they feed mainly on the sandy big-headed sculpin whose intestines
always contain differing amounts of sand or silt. The sand and silt builds up in the
nerpa's stomach and has an effect on the parasites (worms) forcing them to leave
ulcerous pits in its stomach and leave the body in a mass with the faeces. It is
specifically in the autumn that one can find such silted up stomachs in nerpa, cleaned
of parasitic worms, with the wounds of ulcers healing and healed. However the nerpa do
not stay long in the shallows, only two or two and a half weeks. They leave the bays
and shallows with 'passing' ice floes drifting out into the lake, and swim out
The nerpa's feeding habits have been studied at different times of the years and in
different parts of the lake. The Baikal nerpa is a typical fish-eater: 29 different
species of fish have been found in its diet. Its main source of food is the golomyanka
and gobies (fish of no commercial interest that make up 85% of Baikal's fish production
and 195 thousand tons of biomass). The annual requirements of the population as a whole
(with a daily ration of 3kg per individual nerpa) is estimated to be 77 thousand tons
of fish, of which the golomyanka and gobies make up 98%, and commercial fish only 2%.
The results of research have permitted us to reject a previous conception of golomyanka
as a 'dead end' in the trophic system of Baikal's open waters. In the conditions of a
long (half-year) experiment, the ration of golomyanka in terms of a percentage of the
nerpa's body weight was 3 - 5%. For gain in body weight for every 1kg a young nerpa
required 23 - 26kg of gobies, and an adult twice as much. It turned out that when kept
in a pool in complete darkness the nerpa is capable of finding and catching live
The range of the nerpa and the salmon-type fish (omul and sig / white fish) do not overlap most
of the year round, and the speed of healthy fish enable them to avoid the nerpa. Only
the quicker males can catch such fish. The nerpa eats only some 3% of the annual omul
biomass. Data on the feeding habits of the nerpa show convincingly that in numbers and
mass of fish Baikal is not a salmon but a golomyanka-sculpin lake.
Nerpa represents the useful biomass of open deep water Baikal (four fifth of the
surface area of the lake). Commercial fish can be obtained from the coastal slope zone
(one fifth of the surface area of the lake).
shrimps, the main components of the food of omul and its rival, golomyanka.
One fifth of this economized food in the habitat of the omul feeds its population for a
year. Without the nerpa, it would be difficult to imagine the normal functioning of the
main commercial fish populations and their exploitation.
||It is difficult to overrate nerpa as a natural
biomeliorator. Of the total annual production of the two species of golomyanka,
equalling almost 118 thousand tons, the nerpa consumes some 64 thousand tons, or
54%. Nerpa's consumption of the more easily caught small golomyanka is extremely
effective, amounting to 64% of its production. In devouring the golomyanka, the nerpa
herd saves some 500 thousand tons of epischura and gammarid|
Unlike other mountain and high mountain lakes, the uniqueness of the Baikal ecosystem is
determined to a considerable extent by the fact that its food pyramid is crowned by a
representative of marine mammals, the nerpa, while the system itself, in its
functioning, is close to that of the sea in that it belongs to a line of full, rich
ecosystems. The nerpa's nutritive role in Baikal is difficult to overrate. First and
foremost it is weakened, sick fish that fall prey to the nerpa, as predator feeder.
Humans simply could not cope with such sorting out and upgrading of the fish population.
The nerpa is doing this constantly. In only one day the nerpa herd consumes some 210
tons of golomyanka and gobies, in total about 41 million individuals.
Research into the feeding habits of the Baikal nerpa allows us to consider it a perfect
natural indicator of the state of Baikal's fish resources.
Clearly, without regular and reliable estimates of the numbers of commercially valuable
animals it is impossible to manage their populations and exploit them successfully. A
method of counting offspring and female head on ice has been worked out bearing in mind
the ecological peculiarities of the Baikal nerpa (migrations and behaviour) and
specifics of the ice regime on Baikal. It boils down to a count of the remains of dens
of females with pups diagnosed according to the moulted fur of the new born offspring.
The count is carried out at the end of April, beginning of May on one hundred sample
2.25 square kilometre areas marked out over the whole of Baikal. Motorcycles are used
to move on the unstable spring ice. According to six counts (1972 - 1985) the offspring
was estimated on average at 15.5 thousand head, fluctuating from 14 to 17 thousand.
The overall reserves are calculated according to the age sex structure of the population,
the share of female population in reproduction and the number of the offspring. From
1972 to 1975 the main reserves, not counting the offspring, numbered 70000 head, in
1980 - 67000 and in 1985 - 62000.
A scientific and economic experiment over many years (1977 - 1986) to assess the state
of the herd in conditions of increased hunting (five times greater than usual) showed
that the replenishment of the herd took place normally with a high level of total
culling, up to 9% of the total number in the population or 11% of the adult population.
The natural death rate of the young is around 12%, one of the lowest amongst real
(earless) seal, and 9% for the animals in the adult population. The total biomass of
the nerpa population is estimated at 3130 tons, and the annual production at 579 tons,
of which about a half is of use to humans.
the years 1931 - 1936. However, because of a decline
in reserves this was followed by limitations in the period and regions of hunting.
During the war (1941 - 1945) and post-war years hunting continued to be cut down. On
average from 1940 to 1950 some 1.5 thousand head were taken each year. From 1951 to
1960, 850 nerpa were killed a year, from 1961 to 1970 - 1075 head, 1971 - 1980 - 2950
and from 1981 to 1985 - 6000 head. The increase in hunting is connected with the change
to the more profitable fur line in the industry, and since 1977 with a deliberately
increased hunt in accordance with the plan of the scientific and economic experiment.
A extremely high level of unofficial hunting also takes place at Baikal, making up some
41% (3.6 thousand) of the total number killed. Unofficial killing includes the catching
of nerpa in fishing nets when fishing (28%), poaching (34%), loss of raw material during
official slaughter (15%), and death from wounds (23%). Without consideration of
unofficial killing it is impossible to ascertain the yearly quota for official hunting.
With the present low reserves due to the high level of barrenness in 1982, the high
death rate as a result of a peculiar virus, 1987 - 1988 (when some 5 to 10 thousand head
perished), and the high level of official and unofficial hunting, the seal industry's
quota should not exceed 5 thousand head a year for the next few years.
||Archaeological findings on the shores of Baikal bear witness to the fact that some
thousands of years ago nerpa was hunted by humans for its fat, meat and fur. In the
second half of the 18th century up to two thousand head were hunted and killed. In the
first decade of the 20th century, with more intensive development on the shores of the
lake and a rise in price of the products of this industry, hunting increased, reaching
5 - 7 thousand head annually in|
An analysis of the existing seal industry has enabled us to make a number of proposals
to government agencies aimed at reorganization of the seal industry at Baikal. Since
1965, during the main hunting period (during ice cover using sledges) the seal industry
has switched over to fur production and hunting for young seals. The stopping of hunting
for adult seals in this period meant that fruitless loss due to wounds was avoided. The
method recommended by me of using synthetic nets under the ice to catch the young seal
has been introduced. Trapping in this way avoids completely the loss of seal as a result
of wounds. The young, whose fur, fat and meat is in great demand, are trapped in the
At present there are three kinds of hunt in the seal industry: with sledges on ice,
spring hunting from boats with guns, and with nets in the autumn.
Sometimes one hears the question: when, after all, will seal hunting at Baikal be banned
altogether? And I answer like this:
a) a ban can be introduced only when the whole Baikal ecosystem is given the status of a
b) there is simply no need to ban the industry. Under-hunting just as over-hunting is
extremely harmful for the population as a whole. The only way of maintaining the head
of the Baikal nerpa population in its present state is a reasonable (sparing) volume of
population reduction by killing which must be based on knowledge of population dynamics
and the general bioecological state of the herd.
private transport to zones adjacent to settlements;
||To protect the numbers of Baikal nerpa the following measures are necessary:|
- a complete ban should be placed on non-organised tourism in cars at Baikal;
- the setting up of areas of protected shoreline and lake as fish and nerpa reserves,
where all water transport would be forbidden;
- limitation of the movements of local inhabitants by
- limitation of recreational activities of holiday-makers at Baikal to places served
by the main road and waterway system;
- a ban on spring (April) movement by motorcycle or snowtractors on Baikal's ice;
- the size of fines for illegal hunting of nerpa should be considerably increased; not
only should the illegally killed nerpa itself be confiscated and the means of killing
but also the offender's means of transport;
- all fishing organizations should be obliged to give an account of all nerpa caught
during fishing and to hand over the nerpa; live nerpa must be released.
Marine mammals are extremely sensitive to pollutants that have a toxic effect on their
organisms, and even lower their capacity to reproduce. Wales, dolphins, and seal have
been defined as subtle indicators of pollution by hydrocarbons, the salts of heavy
metals and organochlorines, It has been noted that harmful substances increase with age
in the animal's organism. From this point of view, the Baikal nerpa, at the top food
pyramid in Baikal's ecosystem, is of particular interest. The first analyses of organs
and tissue of the Baikal nerpa showed the presence of organochlorines; their content in
the fat under the skin, where they accumulate most, was some one or two orders less
than in the under-skin fat of the Baltic seal caught in the Baltic and the North Sea,
and closer to that of seal inhabiting the unpolluted waters of seas off the coasts of
Canada and Greenland. These investigations of ten years ago should be continued.
Indeed, many other investigations should be made into the life and habitation of the
nerpa in Baikal in the near future...