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Culling Cormorants to Acceptable Level 'Not Right'

Barry Kent MacKay, Cormorant Defenders International
The Pilot-Independent
August 8th, 2006

It's ironic that virtually all conservationists and governments claim that they favor "sustainable use," but don't practice it.

The walleye fishery, as described in Joe Sherman's July 26, 2006, article, is a simple "put and take" fishery that ignores all ecological principles and turns Leech Lake into a large bucket into which fish are placed for fishermen to amuse themselves with, without regard to the carrying capacity of the lake, and the impacts, negative or positive, on other wildlife species.

Among those native species is the double-crested cormorant, unique to North America and the West Indies. It was first nearly wiped out through much of the continent by the same wave of destruction that was visited upon the bison (nearly exterminated), the plains wolf (exterminated), the Eskimo curlew (exterminated), the Whooping Crane (nearly exterminated), the Heath Hen (exterminated), the passenger pigeon (exterminated); the black-footed ferret (nearly exterminated) and numerous other species � some once staggeringly abundant � that lived in or near Minnesota.
As if that were not enough, the organochlorine pesticides, the best known being DDT, that came into use in after World War II, nearly finished the job by bio-accumulating up the food chain to reduce reproductive successes in such native species as the osprey, bald eagle, peregrine falcon and the particularly sensitive cormorants.

But precisely because we grew up in the absence of cormorants, now that they are increasing to fulfill the ecological niche left in their absence, they are seen as a competitor against anglers for fish. They are culled, as hawks, owls and wolves were by earlier generations of sportsmen; even though in our supposedly enlightened age we now should know that, in fact, predators are natural to the environment.

There are some 39 species of cormorants, found on every continent, and they have been around for tens of millions of years, and nowhere is there any record of any cormorant wiping out any species of fish or even any wild population of any kind of fish anywhere in the world. Countless studies already show that, apart from fish farms or a few other highly contrived circumstances, cormorants don't have a significant impact on "commercial" or "sport" fish or the prey of such species.

For example, in 1994 the International Association of Great Lakes Research stated, "Many studies worldwide have examined cormorant diets and virtually all have reached the same conclusion, that cormorants eat mainly fish species ... which are not exploited heavily by commercial or sport fisheries." The Ontario government found, in 2000, that "No state or federal agency in the United States is known to have found evidence that cormorants are causing significant impacts on fisheries, except in the aquaculture industry."

The slaughter of nearly 3,000 birds (a number that would be significantly exceeded by factoring in those wounded and left to die or orphaned nestlings left to starve) may provide employment for state employees, but is a particular travesty given the report that there are lots of walleyes in the artificially-enhanced population.

Inland fish populations have been hit hard by toxic run-off; increased destruction of feeder streams and breeding habitat from an increased "development" of tourism and other accommodation; displacement by many non-native species of fish and other organisms; losses to commercial fishing; climate change and other factors harder for wildlife managers to deal with than simply shooting cormorants, who are easy scapegoats lacking in any economic or political clout.

There are more than twice as many citizens of Minnesota as there are double-crested cormorants throughout all of North America, from Alaska to the West Indies or from California to Newfoundland. And yet there is, we are told, "too many."

The object of the cull briefly mentioned is to reduce the cormorants to an "acceptable level." And yet a recently published, peer-reviewed scientific study by Linda Wires and Francesca Cuthbert, both of the Department of Fisheries and Conservation Biology of the University of Minnesota (Waterbirds 29(1) 9-37, 2006) shows that there are fewer cormorants now than in pre-Columbian America.

What is an "acceptable level" is too often what the people who fear or hate cormorants remember from childhood. Instead of killing the birds, the Department of Natural Resources should be educating the public on the basics of biology and ecology, and the fact that the cormorants are a native, natural part of Minnesota's heritage, and an indicator of a healthy environment.

Barry Kent MacKay, Cormorant Defenders International
 

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