Baltic Marine Environment
Protection Commission



Grey seals. Photo: Wolfgang Dinter

The three seal species: the grey seal (Halichoerus grypus), the ringed seal (Phoca hispida botnica), and the harbour seal (Phoca vitulina) as well as the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) are important and valuable components of the Baltic Sea ecosystem, and their continued survival and well-being are inextricably linked to, and dependent on the quality of the Baltic Sea environment as well as human activities. The harbour porpoise, the ringed seal and the harbour seal are threatened according to HELCOM Red List of Baltic Sea species; the harbour porpoise is categorised as Critically Endangered (CR), and the ringed seal and harbour seal as Vulnerable (VU). The grey seal is categorised as Least Concern (LC). All the species are also listed in the Annex II of the EU Habitats Directive as animal species of community interest whose conservation requires the designation of special areas of conservation.

In the 1970s and 1980s the populations of all seal species in the Baltic Sea were alarmingly low due to hunting and reproductive disorders that have been connected to pollution by organochlorides. The HELCOM Recommendation 27-28/2 on Conservation of Seals in the Baltic Sea Area (2006) states that the long-term objectives for the management of Baltic Seals are a natural abundance and distribution and a health status that ensures their future existence. The Baltic Sea Action Plan further stipulates that “By 2015, improved conservation status of species included in the HELCOM lists of threatened and/or declining species and habitats of the Baltic Sea area will be achieved and by 2015 the by-catch of harbour porpoise, seals, water birds and non-target fish species has been significantly reduced with the aim to reach by-catch rates close to zero”.

Four of the five seal Management Units show population recovery in accordance with the General Management Principles of the Recommendation. For one Management Unit (ringed seals in the Southwestern Archipelago Sea, Gulf of Finland and Gulf of Riga), the population status and trend is more unclear. However, that is likely to be caused by environmental conditions that cannot be mitigated by the application of the Recommendation. In the case of the management unit “grey seals” a reconstitution of the subpopulation south of 59º North may require further programmes and measures for the return of the seals, restoration and protection of previous haul out sites, as well as reduction of human impacts both landward and seaward of these sites. However, all seal populations in the Baltic Sea, except for the Kattegat harbour seals, remain below the estimated levels in the beginning of the 20th century.

The HELCOM ad hoc SEAL Expert Group was established according to Recommendation 27-28/2 and has been meeting annually since 2006. The group consists of marine mammal experts, scientists, and managers from the Contracting Parties around the Baltic Sea. Representatives of the fisheries sector participate as well in order to improve dialogue related to protection and management of marine mammals between the environment and fisheries sectors. The work is carried out in three teams: population size, distribution, and health teams lead by Mr. Markus Ahola, Finland, Mr. Olle Karlsson, Sweden, and Ms. Ursula Siebert, Germany, respectively.

The priority areas of HELCOM SEAL

According to Recommendation 27-28/2 and the first Meeting of HELCOM SEAL the priority areas of HELCOM SEAL works are :

  • to quantify the Limit Reference, Precautionary Approach and Target Reference Levels for seal populations;
  • to define and quantify similar reference levels with regard to seal distribution and health status;
  • to assist in harmonising National Management Plans for cross-boundary Baltic Sea Seal Management Units[1];
  • to draft HELCOM Guidelines for exemptions to the General Management Principles[2];
  • to develop and co-ordinate monitoring programmes for seals and assess their population structure, size and growth, reproduction and breeding and moulting distribution, contaminant burden and health status, fisheries interactions and bycatches, and to evaluate their results;
  • to assist in harmonizing the operation of National Management Plans;
  • to evaluate seal movements and distribution to assist Contracting Parties to identify and establish a network of relevant protected areas for important actual and potential seal habitats across the Baltic Sea area, and assist in harmonizing the regulations and monitoring of these conservation areas;
  • to develop indicator fact sheets to assess the favourable status of seal populations;
  • to consider issues regarding the protection of Baltic Sea Harbour Porpoise (HELCOM Recommendation 17/2;
  • to develop annual Terms of Reference for HELCOM SEAL;
  • to report to HELCOM HABITAT.

[1] Harbour seals in the Kalmarsund region (Sweden), 2)Southwestern Baltic harbour seals (Denmark, Germany, Poland, Sweden), 3)Gulf of Bothnia ringed seals (Finland, Sweden), 4) Southwestern Archipelago Sea, Gulf of Finland and Gulf of Riga ringed seals (Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Russia), 5) Baltic Sea grey seals (all Contracting Parties to the Helsinki Convention)

[2] populations size (with the long-term objective to allow seal populations to recover towards carrying capacity levels); distribution (with the long-term objective to allow breeding seals to expand to suitable breeding distribution in all regions of the Baltic); and health status (with the long-term objective of attaining the health status that secures the continued existence of the populations)


Mock Employee
Anders Galatius

Department of Bioscience, Aarhus University

Phone: +45 28710372
Fax: +45 87155015

Mock Employee
Jannica Haldin

HELCOM Professional Secretary
Phone: +358 40 485 5905​