Innovation and engineering saving the day
The Elomatic Innovation Team has invented a man-made nest they hope will help save the Saimaa ringed seal from extinction. The nest is made of common reed found in and around the lake. The first prototype was tested on Lake Tuusula north of Helsinki in the winter of 2015/2016. After successful testing the local Centre for Economic Development, Transport and the Environment (ELY Centre) has now granted permission for similar prototypes to be tested with seals on Lake Saimaa in early 2017. The testing will take place at selected sites under the auspices of Metsähallitus, the Finnish State Forest Enterprise. The Saimaa ringed seal is the most endangered seal species in the world.
According to Metsähallitus, the Finnish State Forest Enterprise, there are only 320 Saimaa ringed seals left in Lake Saimaa. It is the only place the seal subspecies is found in the world. In the early 20th century, there were an estimated 700 seals, but hunting, commercial fishing, and climate change, among others, have contributed to the decline in numbers to the situation where it is cur-rently the most endangered seal in the world.
To breed successfully, Saimaa ringed seals require sufficient amounts of ice and snow as the seal gives birth to pups in a cave-like nest built of snow. Higher temperatures and the lack of snow in recent years have been issues of particular concern and, unfortunately, when the nests melt the seal pups are left without the crucial protection they need during the winter.
Metsähallitus has with success implemented a programme, whereby artificial snowdrifts have been shovelled with snow pushers into high piles to create nesting sites; a process that would occur naturally with the help of the wind, if there was sufficient snow. This has proved useful in creating ideal nesting places, but requires a lot of manual labour and is only a partial solution to the problem.
Pekka Koivukunnas, a member of the Elomatic Innovation Team, volunteered to build artificial snowdrifts, as described above, on Lake Saimaa during the 2015–2016 winter. A seal pup has already been born in one of the nests he helped to build, and was seen with its mother enjoying the nesting site.
An idea for an artificial nest is born
The Elomatic Innovation Team is used to coming up with innovative ideas to solve their customers’ problems, and were keen to put their skills to work in this worthwhile cause too. They used the TRIZ problem-solving and idea generation method and focused particularly on what local natural resources could be used to fulfil the requirements. They quite rapidly identified common reed as a suitable material, that could be accessed close to the nesting site or transported there with ease.
According to Jukka Mikkonen, another member of the Elomatic Innovation Team, it took only about half an hour to design the artificial nest in a cage-like, parallelogram shape, and a further two hours to collect the common reed to construct it.
The reeds were bound with biodegradable string and stacked together to form the structure, which is about two metres long and over one metre wide.
After consultation with Metsähallitus it was decided to build the test nest in January 2016 on the shore of Lake Tuusula, just over 25 km north of Helsinki. There are no seals in the lake, but the idea was to expose the artificial nest to the elements to see how it would cope and hold up over time under different weather conditions.
During the testing period weekly reports and pictures were sent to Metsähallitus and the hope is that the local ELY Centre would grant permission to build a similar structure on Lake Saimaa in 2017. The prototype passed the test with flying colours and the Elomatic innovation team have been granted permission by the local ELY Centre to build similar structures on Lake Saimaa. The building of the nests will be started in the Autumn of 2016 with actual testing on Lake Saimaa expected in January 2017.
Benefits of the artificial nest
- Can be built on site from plentiful and local natural resources
- Reduces the need for snow insulation especially during winters with little snow
- Enables independent nest building by locals
- Common reed can be stored several years near the nesting site in an enclosed environment like a barn. As such it can be used quickly to build nests during winters with low snowfall.
- Biodegradable material
- Does not sink
Much work left to be done
Saimaa ringed seal numbers have stabilised, but much work lies ahead to ensure that the subspecies can be brought off the highly endangered list to relative safety. To achieve this Saimaa ringed seal numbers would have to increase to 400, which means that a whole range of conservation and human intervention measures will be required for the foreseeable future and beyond.
The Elomatic Innovation Team is confident that their concept can be used to make a contribution in saving the seal for future generations