WI - Cormorant Research Group News Double-crested cormorant

Author/s: McCombie B.

Title: Cormorants to kill for

Journal: Outdoor Life, 1999, 203(2): 20-22

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On July 19, 1998, wildlife technician Brian Edmonds and a coworker moored their boat on the Little Galloo Island on northeastern Lake Ontario..Employees of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, they were out to collect data on double-crested cormorants on Galloo, a major rookery. But the day's work was erased when they discovered the lifeless bodies of hundreds of fledgling cormorants.

"It started with one here, one there," Edmonds says. "Then we saw groups of 20 to 30 dead birds...and an awful lot of empty shotgun shells."

The next day, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents counted almost 1,000 dead young cormorants, apparently shot the previous weekend. Investigators also scooped up buckets of spent 12-gauge shotgun shells.

At press time, no arrests had been made. Investigators are focusing on angry residents of the area who blame the cormorants for a disastrous drop in smallmouth bass numbers in their section of Lake Ontario. Fewer bass mean fewer visiting anglers, and people whose careers are tied to fishing and tourism are fearful for their livelihoods.

But problems with cormorants and fishing extend well beyond western New York state. Across the nation, anglers believe cormorants are snapping up way too many gamefish.

Large, dusky and with a wingspan of more than four feet, cormorants in flight are often mistakenly identified as black geese. Their sinuous necks, triangular heads and long, hooked bills bespeak an efficient fish-catcher that can dive 60 feet deep to snap up its dinner.

Originally from the prairie provinces of Canada, cormorants came to Lake Superior in 1913, colonizing the other Great Lakes by the mid-'40s. Despite some declines through the 1960s, according to Robert Miller of the New York DEC, the Great Lakes population of these birds doubled every three years from 1973 to 1991.

Diane Pence of U.S. Fish and Wildlife says that in 1997 some 60,000 breeding pairs made the Great Lakes home. The New York DEC counted 7,591 cormorant nests on Galloo Island alone in 1997, the nation's largest colony. And it appears the fish-robbers' range is extending-there are estimated to be approximately 107,000 pairs of doublecrested cormorants across the U.S. on coastal and inland waterways.

Why such increases? In 1972, cormorants were added to the Migratory Bird Treaty, making it a federal offense to kill them. About the same time, the pesticide DDT and the industrial chemicals known as PCBs were outlawed, both of which had impaired cormorant reproduction. But as cormorant numbers spiked, so did concerns about decreasing fish stocks, because mature cormorants put away upwards of one pound of fish every day-anything from minnows and fry to mature bass and snapper bluefish. Oregon cormorants-rarely seen there five years ago-devour 10 to IS steelhead and salmon smolts per day during fall runs.

"When I was a kid, I never saw cormorants around here," says Ted Hinkley, a third-generation fishing guide from the area near Little Galloo, who started chartering in 1952. By the mid1980s, thousands of the birds appeared.

Like most area guides, Hinkley specializes in smallmouth bass. According to Hinkley's fishing journals, his clients caught 1,400 bass in the summer of 1984. By 1987, that number increased to 1,721. Yet his most recent journal says it all: summer 1997, 512 bass caught; summer 1998, 316 bass. It's no coincidence that an area that once supported 70 fishing guides now has just 20. And any day he's on the water, Hinkley sees at least 5,000 cormorants, often feeding on perch and smallies.

Russ McCullough, a New York DEC biologist, says that while the birds dine on forage fish like sticklebacks and shad, "cormorants are definitely eating bass, there's no doubt about that." Bass up to 10 inches long. "And in substantial numbers," he adds.

Under the Migratory Bird Treaty, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for the birds, and its position seems to be that there is a problem of perception about cormorants. A December 1997 report argues that the birds have a "very minor" effect on gamefish populations, despite all the anecdotal testimony of anglers. Yet responses from 25 state game and fish agencies all complain about the adverse impact of cormorants on sportfish.

The New York State DEC recently completed 11 studies of the cormorants on Lake Ontario. The agency concluded not only that the birds have a significant impact on smallmouth bass, but that cormorant numbers must somehow be controlled.

Miller, of New York's DEC, doesn't think hunting is feasible: The birds are too wary, and possibly inedible.

"Hell, I'll try to eat one," says Herb Good, an Oregon fishing guide and outfitter, "if that's what it takes to get a hunting season going."

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S. Volponi