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Finland rallies to save one of world’s most endangered seals

PUUMALA: The serene, icy waters of Finland’s Lake Saimaa are a boon to fishermen and tourists, but their presence also threatens one of the world’s rarest and most endangered seals.

Despite seeing numbers recover in recent decades, the Saimaa ringed seal still faces extinction amid climate change and die-hard fishing habits.

Out on Saimaa, a dark grey, whiskered creature pops its head up and breaks the surface in Finland’s lake district, close to the Russian border.

“That’s Eeva, she’s not swimming away because we’ve known each other for almost 30 years,” smiles Risto Eronen, a retiree who since childhood has closely watched the seals, which are found only in the lake’s freshwater.

“She’s the old lady of Saimaa and has given birth to 10 pups in her life,” he tells AFP in his boat just metres away.

The population of ‘saimaannorppa’, as the mammal is called in Finnish, reached 400 this year which is four times more than in the 1980s when it was expected to die out completely.

But this is still nowhere near enough to ensure the subspecies’ survival, campaigners say.

“The mild winters caused by climate change have made their lives harder,” as the seals need ice and snow to build their breeding lairs, Kaarina Tiainen from the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation (SLL) explains.

But the most acute danger for the seal, according to campaigners, is fishing for vendace, a small whitefish, and a summertime delicacy with four to eight seal pups dying annually caught in the nets.

By mid-June, the seals have all left their rocky breeding spots for the depths of the lake, except for Eeva, who prefers the surface and is recognisable by her unusual bark.

“Most likely it’s because of a fishing hook in her throat,” Eronen says.

“She got caught on a line and that same spring-time started making heavy wheezing sounds” and spending longer on the surface taking in oxygen.

Most of Saimaa’s 4,400 square kilometres were covered by net-fishing restrictions, but the government declined to renew them at the end of June, preferring voluntary arrangements.

Curbs on net fishing have generated impassioned resistance in the tourist hotspot dotted with 50,000 summer cottages and which attracted over a million overnight stays a year before the pandemic.

“Fishing for vendace with nets is a way of life for many here,” says Teemu Himanen, whose local association issued 980 net fishing licences last year for just one part of Saimaa.

“People are chomping at the bit to be able to start net-fishing again in July,” he says, adding that many feel the threat to the seals is overstated.

“If the net is properly anchored to the bottom, the seal can easily avoid getting caught in it, even if it eats the fish out of it.”

To compensate for the end of the net ban, the SLL and volunteers have been constructing 100 seal-safe fish traps with green wire mesh, to distribute free of charge.

On a June Saturday morning in the village of Koikkala, 100 male and female fishing enthusiasts queue at a tent to sign a declaration that they will give up net fishing, before being given a free trap.

The popularity of the initiative is a sign that “the desire to protect the ringed seal has been rising sharply” in recent years, conservationist Tiainen says.

Himanen welcomes the move but adds: “I don’t believe you’ll ever fully get rid of nets on Saimaa.

“You just can’t catch the same numbers in a trap.”

This year Finnish authorities submitted a bid for the habitats of the Saimaa ringed seal distinguishable by distinctive white circles on its fur to be added to the Unesco World Heritage List.

The subspecies are already classed as ‘endangered’ by Finnish and EU authorities, and polls show a majority of Finns support tighter legislation to protect the animals.

As the plight of the seal gains more attention, “more people want to come to the region to see the animals themselves, so there’s a constant balancing act,” Tiainen admits.

And as saimaannorppa numbers grow, the question arises of when to relax protective measures.

“When there were only 300 seals they said we need controls on nets to get the number up to 400. But now we’re past 400 and that conversation still hasn’t stopped,” Himanen notes.

The government wants to reach “an appropriate level of protection” without setting a figure, yet for campaigners, the population will need to be at least a thousand or two before protections can be loosened.

“But we may never be in a situation where it isn’t in some way threatened and needing protection,” says Tiainen.

G20 finance ministers set to green light global tax reform

Finance ministers from the G20 richest nations resumed discussions in Venice on Saturday to give the green light to a historic deal to tax multinational companies more fairly.

The framework for reform, including a minimum global corporate tax rate of 15 percent, was agreed upon by 131 countries earlier this month and could be in place by 2023.

Hailed by those involved as historic, it aims to prevent a race to the bottom as countries compete to offer the lowest tax rates to attract investment, with many multinationals as a result paying derisory levels of tax.

“This minimum tax on companies must be ambitious,” French finance minister Bruno Le Maire told AFP on Friday, adding that the meeting of the G20 the countries with the 19 biggest economies and the European Union represented a unique opportunity.

The countries representing 85 percent of global wealth were seeking a deal “for the 21st century, which will allow for the fair taxation of digital giants which largely escape taxation, which nobody can accept”, he said.

Final agreement on the minimum rate is not expected until the run-up to the G20 leaders’ summit in Rome in October.

But the Venice talks are an opportunity to thrash out further details and exert pressure on those who have not yet signed up to the deal, struck under the auspices of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) a club of 38 wealthy economies.

The United States, France, and Germany are among several countries pressing for a higher rate, while aid agencies including Oxfam also argue that 15 percent is too low.

But with some nations opposed even to this EU member Ireland lured Apple and Google to Dublin with its low tax rates there is not likely to be any change to the rate.

“We are really now on the way” to a deal that “will be finalised shortly”, German finance minister Olaf Scholz told CNBC television.

The minimum rate is expected to affect fewer than 10,000 major companies, those with an annual turnover of more than 750 million euros ($890 million).

It is one of two so-called pillars of global tax reform that have been under negotiation for years, and have been given new impetus under the US President Joe Biden.

The other would give countries the right to tax multinationals on profits they earn from their activities in the nation, and would initially apply to the top 100 or so companies.

It is targeted at technology giants such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple, but could also affect companies like energy giant BP, which is present in 85 countries.

According to a draft obtained by AFP of the final statement, which is still being discussed, the G20 ministers will “endorse” the OECD’s “historic agreement on a more stable and fairer international tax architecture”.