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article imageGerman Fishermen Thwart Conservationists In Seal Project

By Martina Rathke     Feb 24, 2001 in Technology
RUEGEN, Germany (dpa) - It was a vision for some and a horror scenario for others.

If the Federal Conservation Agency in Bonn had succeeded, then about a year from now tourists to the Baltic Sea island of Ruegen would have been able, from a distance, to watch seals frolicking on the beaches and shallow waters in a protected area off-limits to human beings. But that vision now will remain just that.

"The resettlement project for seals on Ruegen's northern coast is done with," says Franz August Emde, the Bonn agency spokesman. The project failed due to the resistance of fishermen.

The agency said that the fishermen rejected the offer of compensation payments for any damage to their equipment or fish catch losses from the seals. Bonn authorities had also promised not to declare any further areas off-limits to fishing except the one foreseen off Ruegen's northern coast.

Seals are voracious fish hunters. Marine biologists say that 200 seals consume 400 to 600 tons of fish each year. This makes the cute animals, right next to the cormorant, a serious competitor for the fishermen.

"If the seals want to come here, they'll do it of their own accord," says fisherman Dieter Peplow of the village of Breege. Nor does he or his other colleagues hold much faith in the promises made of compensation payments.

"Last year we were supposed to get payments from the state. But nothing has been sent. Nothing," Peplow complains.

The country's top fishing industry official sympathizes with the worries of the Ruegen fishermen.

"The fishermen over on the North Sea have known this problem for years," says Martin Brick, president of the German Fisheries Federation. "The seals there eat as much plaice as the fishermen are allowed to catch in a year - 11,000 tons."

Brick believes that instead of a seal resettlement project, what is more urgently needed is to reduce the seal population in the North Sea from the current 10,000 to a more "normal" 6,000 seals.

"The fishermen do not want to wipe out any species of animal. But we need a reasonable coexistence," he says.

The project which the Federal Conservation Agency had worked out together with the Oceanic Museum of Stralsund, the last stopping-off point before reaching the island of Ruegen, was an ambitious one.

Over the next five years, the population of seals in the protected zone of Ruegen was to have grown to around 200. Each year 15 to 20 young animals captured off the Estonian coast were to have been resettled in a quiet stretch of shoreline.

Such aims were by no means utopian. Up till around 100 years ago, some 100,000 seals were thriving in the Baltic Sea, according to Stralsund seal expert Klaus Harder. But then hunting of seals wiped out the animals in the southern part of the Baltic.

In addition, high industrial pollution, especially the PCBs, has made most female seals infertile.

Now the disappointment about the foiled project is great on Ruegen.

"We wanted the project," says Ernst Heinemann, mayor of the town of Putgarten near the northernmost point of Kap Arkona. The seals would have given tourism a boost, he believes.

"But even more important, the seals would have again found a habitat where they once already had a home," Heinemann said.
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