Russian authorities were investigating whether 141 Baikal earless seals starved to death after their carcasses washed up in Siberia on the shores of the world’s deepest lake, officials said Friday.
The dead seals — most of them pregnant females — started appearing along Lake Baikal last weekend, the Irkutsk region’s government said.
The population of the Baikal earless seals, also known as nerpa, is estimated to be around 130,000. The lake in southeastern Russia near the Mongolian border, 2,600 miles (4,185 kilometers) east of Moscow, contains 20 percent of the world’s freshwater and is home to 1,500 species of plants and animals that exist nowhere else in the world.
Alexei Kalinin, a prosecutor for West Baikal who monitors the environment, told the Interfax news agency that one of the likeliest causes for the deaths could be the scarcity of food because of the growing nerpa population.
“The dead animals were all hungry. There was no food in their stomachs,” Kalinin said.
Authorities have ruled out a disease outbreak, and say lab samples haven’t shown what could have killed the animals.
The population of the nerpas, Baikal’s only mammal, shot up after hunting them was outlawed in 2009. A number of scientists and local leaders, however, have called for allowing limited hunting to control the lake’s growing seal population.