Drop the Fish or We'll Shoot

Cormorants: From the endangered species list to the hit list

One summer night in 1998, five shotgun-toting fishing guides from upstate New York took a long boat ride to a remote bird sanctuary on Lake Ontario called Little Galloo Island. The barren, guano-covered scrap of land was home to Lake Ontario's main colony of double-crested cormorants--large fish-eating birds that many anglers blamed for a downturn in the smallmouth bass populations.

In the course of a few hours, the men proceeded to shoot about 850 of the birds, blasting them from their nests and leaving the chicks to starve. Ultimately, all five men were prosecuted for violating the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, fined, and placed under house arrest. But in the view of many locals, the perpetrators weren't criminals; they were heroes, only doing what was necessary to protect their livelihoods and the health of the fishery. Fundraisers were held to help pay off the fines.

While a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman denounced the Little Galloo shootings as "inhumane," the agency--flooded with complaints about cormorants--already had plans in place for a more radical culling of Little Galloo's surging cormorant population. In the years since then, tens of thousands of cormorants nationwide have been killed legally under so-called "depredation orders" designed to protect game and farm fish from the big birds.

In the view of the cormorants' advocates, the government's shifting management approach to the species is a matter of considerable bitterness. Historically, the persecution of cormorants--both government-sanctioned and vigilante--resulted in the species' disappearance from much of its natural range. Like eagles, ospreys, and other winged predators, cormorants wound up on the endangered species list as a result of exposure to the pesticide DDT.

Over the past several decades, thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the banning of DDT, the cormorant staged a remarkable recovery. In Minnesota, the birds have now established at least 38 colonies, the largest of which is located at Leech Lake, a popular north central Minnesota fishing destination. In recent years, the Leech Lake colony--established on a barren scrap of land called Little Pelican Island--has swelled from just 73 nesting pairs in 1998 to over 2,500 pairs last year. As the cormorants became increasingly visible, fishing started to get worse. Frustrated fishermen claimed it was cause and effect.

Last month, the Fish and Wildlife Service--in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, and the Department of Agriculture--released a proposed solution: a plan to reduce the Leech Lake colony by approximately 80 percent. The rationale? Though it admits to a "lack of specific data" on what the birds are eating, the Fish and Wildlife Service points to "indications that [cormorants] may have impacted some walleye year classes and perhaps yellow perch populations."

In the view of Linda Wires, a cormorant researcher at the University of Minnesota, such uncertainty calls for further study, not an 80 percent reduction in the breeding population of a native species just now making a comeback. Wires, who conducted the state's first cormorant census last year, acknowledges that there has been a pronounced decline in the population of young walleye and adult yellow perch in Leech Lake in recent years--but notes that the decline started before the dramatic uptick in the cormorant population.

Historically, cormorants have been the object of unusual and virulent hatred. In North America, there is no other bird so fiercely despised. In his 1929 thesis, "The Natural History of the Double Crested Cormorant," Harrison Lewis wrote that the cormorant "is by no means as unpleasant as it has been painted but is actually a reputable avian citizen, not without intelligence, amiability, and interest." Then as now, that remains a minority opinion. On internet fishing forums, anglers make outright calls for their extirpation. "I say kill 'em all and get rid of the worthless birds," one Leech Lake fisherman posted recently on fishingminnesota.com. "You can't tell me that anyone cares about those ugly things."

Such sentiments are unfair, counters Gerald Winegrad, the vice president for policy for the American Bird Conservancy. He points out that the vast majority of peer-reviewed studies have concluded that cormorants have only a minor effect on the fish species sought by sport anglers. In 2002, the American Ornithological Union--which has a reputation as a relatively apolitical, science-driven body--issued a statement declaring that "every study for about a century has shown that cormorants do not impact significantly the demography of desirable fish, except at very small scales."

The fishing public has not bought it. As a result, government managers have increasingly bowed to public and industry complaints, and authorized cormorant kills--sometimes with little or no scientific justification. Winegrad points to a USDA "management" program in Washington state. From 1997 to 2002, more than 5,000 cormorants were killed on the Columbia River in an effort to protect salmon. The program was discontinued, Winegrad says, after researchers analyzed the stomach contents of the dead cormorants. It turned out they were not eating many salmon--but they were consuming plenty of pikeminnows, a species known to prey heavily on juvenile salmon.

Francesca Cuthbert, a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at the University of Minnesota, says that fisheries biologists have made a strong "circumstantial" case that cormorants at Leech Lake are hurting walleye and yellow perch populations. In trawling studies last year, for instance, researchers were unable to find young-of-the-year walleyes on Leech Lake; those results stood in sharp contrast to the findings in nearby lakes with similar ecologies but no cormorants. That said, Cuthbert still believes more research is in order before Leech Lake's cormorants are put before the firing squad. "Fisheries are in decline all over the world, and in almost every case, human overfishing is the cause," she says.

Bette Stallman, a wildlife scientist with the Humane Society of the United States--which filed suit against the U.S. government in February over cormorant management policies--is bothered by the precedent of killing wildlife that fishermen happen not to like. "This is going to create a precedent. It's going to be cormorants today, and it's going to be pelicans next time," she theorizes. Indeed, like cormorants, white pelicans have staged a comeback in Minnesota. While the birds do not congregate at the same densities as cormorants--and don't look so menacing--they eat on average four times as many fish as cormorants. At fish farms and rearing ponds, where bite-size fishes are plentiful and easy to snatch, flocks of cormorants and pelicans often clean out the inventory.

Whether the birds are capable of causing the same sort of damage to natural lakes--and natural fish populations--remains a subject of debate. "If you asked me that two or three years ago, I would have said no," says Steve Mortensen, a biologist who works for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe. But Mortensen thinks that Leech Lake may be one of the relatively rare bodies of water where cormorants are causing significant damage to the fishery.

"Obviously, something is going on with the walleyes," he says. "We don't have any evidence that the cormorants are causing it, but we can't find any other explanations, either." They'll get their answer this summer when the culling begins and researchers get to see what's in the guts of the dead birds.

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