Both fish and equipment fall victim to the antics of grey seals along the Skellefteå coast. The County Administrative Board in Västerbotten paid out a total of over 790,000 kronor in compensation to fishermen for seal-related damages in 2022.
Norran met Kent Sjöstedt, one of the affected fishermen who operates just outside Lövånger, and has been a professional fisherman for more than 30 years. He feels that the situation has worsened, with seals causing more destruction than ever.
–20-30 years ago, it was a big deal if you spotted a seal, a fun thing. But today, it's completely different, he explains on the way to the fishing hut. Now the grey seal population has exploded, and they've also become a lot more resourceful than ringed seals, the other species of seal native to Skellefteå waters.
Kent stopped fishing full-time in 2004 and started working at the airport. This summer, he is taking a leave of absence to test the waters full-time again. However, it's not without risks, he continues:
– Now that I'm taking time off, there's a lot at stake, so I hope I won't have too many problems with seals this year.
Grey seals work smart, not hard. Kent shares how the seals often recognize the boats and understand that a net or a trap will be lowered. They can hide at the bottom and simply wait for the prey to be served up right in front of them.
– When we pull up the traps and see a bunch of fish stuck in the top of the net, then you know they have been lying just below, keeping watch, says Kent.
These days, Kent rarely sets out traps and nets overnight – a practice he used fifteen years ago. Instead, he deploys the traps early in the morning and retrieves them a couple of hours later, hoping that the seals haven't taken everything.
–They work so incredibly efficiently, he says.
Sara Königson, a researcher at the Department of Aquatic Resources at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, has been studying the impact of seals on fishing for 25 years. She has observed a significant change in the seal population.
– It has become worse. Now there are around 60,000 seals; many, many more than when I started working on this.
Sara believes that the increase is due to inadequate population management, allowing the seals to multiply. In relation to the population size, the quota for seal hunting is low, she explains.
With an annual increase of about seven percent, today's 60,000 seals will become 4,200 more next year. Meanwhile, the hunting quota remains at 1,000-1,500 animals per year. Sara believes that the current management plan is insufficient to address the problem.
– In practice, nothing is being done to catch up. Compensation and seal-safe equipment are not enough, she says.
Kent also agrees that the existing hunting measures are not sufficient to protect fishing.
– I had a fishing companion who shot a seal, but then a new one arrived the next day, he says.
The compensation paid out to licensed fishermen is based on the amount of fish caught, which Kent considers a good incentive to continue working in fishing, even though it may require employing different strategies.
– With ringed seals, one can leave an old net and lure them into taking the fish there instead. They keep eating until they're satisfied. Dealing with grey seals is more challenging, he explains.
In the fishing hut located by the sea, he proudly presents several boxes of nets in varying sizes. Some of them are of a newer design, while others have experienced the grey seals' relentless activity. Kent holds up one of the thin nets in front of him, its hole so large that he is clearly visible through it.
– When it comes to these nets, they simply chomp right through, he says.