Finland's Lake Saimaa is home to one of the world's rarest seals, the Saimaa ringed seal (Pusa hispida saimensis). Just 260 or so of these critically endangered animals remain in the freshwater lake, and now the European Union has told Finland that the country is not doing enough to protect the species.

"We cannot allow rare species to disappear," a spokesperson for the E.U.'s environment commissioner told reporters on Wednesday. "E.U. laws protect them." The E.U.'s Habitats Directive law lists the Saimaa seal as a priority for protection and imposes strict limits on activities such as net-fishing, which might endanger the animals.

Unfortunately, Finland has not followed the rules of the Habitats Directive. And although the species has been legally protected in Finland since 1955, after state-sponsored hunting almost wiped the seals out, the country has taken few recent steps to protect the seals. According to the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, Finland's agricultural ministry has so far advocated only voluntary limitations on fishing on Lake Saimaa, despite the fact that the biggest threat to Saimaa ringed seals is drowning in the nets of amateur fishermen.

Finland did pass a commercial net-fishing ban last month, but it covers only 1,550 square kilometers (about 35 percent) of the lake, and three of the 200 fishing districts on the lake refused to sign on to the ban. It also does not cover amateur fishermen, who appear to be the biggest part of the problem.

The E.U. Environmental Commission says there is evidence that "numerous young and adult seals are caught and drown in these nets every year" and that Finland is not doing enough to protect critical breeding sites.

Finland now has two months to come up with a serious rescue plan, possibly involving banning fishing during key breeding months. If the E.U.'s Environmental Commission is not satisfied at that point, it plans to formally take the issue to the European Court of Justice.

Meanwhile, it's not just nets that endanger the seals. Climate change has reduced the amount of ice available to the seals for their dens, making them more visible to fishermen, who, as we wrote last year, sometimes kill them to prevent them from competing for the fishermen's catch. The seals were once considered pests, and according to Metsähallitus, the Finnish natural resources agency, a bounty was paid for killing them from 1882 until 1948.

Luckily, amid all of this, there is some slightly good news about the Saimaa seals: 57 seals were born in this year's spring breeding season, only three of which died shortly after birth. This number is up from 44 pups born in 2009. A minor victory, to be sure, but with just 260 seals remaining, every new birth counts.

Photo: Saimaa ringed seal, via Wikipedia