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Coming Together for Cormorants

Published 03/31/06
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 37 Number 1, Spring 2006

Government agents opened fire on the nesting birds. The birds panicked. Normally one or the other, if not both, parents would attend the nest, but with bullets slamming into some, others were forced to flee from what was, ironically, a bird sanctuary. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources had turned the “sanctuary” into a slaughterhouse.

This terrible scene occurred in 2005 in Presqu’ile Provincial Park, on a small island called High Bluff on the north shore of Lake Ontario. During nesting season, the islands are supposedly a sanctuary — and yet here were Ministry personnel armed with .222 caliber rifles, shooting into a massive colony of birds that included great blue herons, black-crowned night-herons, common egrets, and double-crested cormorants.

It was the cormorants that the government truly had in its sights. In the last few decades, no species of bird has become more hated, with less justification, than the double-crested cormorant.

Cormorants were once endangered — nearly extinct, in fact, as a victim of eggshell thinning and chick deformities caused by DDT and other pollutants. But once we began to clean up the environment, the numbers of cormorants increased, sometimes dramatically, along with fears that cormorants might harm fisheries.

Countless studies show, however, that outside of fish farms or a few very specialized circumstances, cormorants don’t have a huge negative impact on either commercial or “sport” fishes. 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 ministry itself stated in 2000, “No state or federal agency in the U.S. is known to have found evidence that cormorants are causing significant impacts on fisheries, except in the aquaculture industry.”

None of this scientific evidence, however, seems to matter to those determined to do away with cormorants. Across much of North America, hatred for cormorants has reached a frenzied crescendo. The birds have been gunned down in large numbers, set on fire, clubbed, stomped on, and blown apart. Unfortunately, many wildlife management agencies have helped fuel this hatred.

In 2002 in Ontario, the influential sport fishing lobby was waging a vitriolic (and factually-incorrect) campaign against cormorants, calling for widespread cormorant slaughter. A compromise plan was reached: over a four-year period, eggs would be oiled and nests would be destroyed in order to lower cormorant populations in the park.

That process commenced — but unsatisfied, the cormorant-haters applied even more pressure on the government. The following year, the Ministry began concocting reasons to begin lethal culling, seeking to shoot 6,000 cormorants nesting in the trees on High Bluff Island.

Because the best scientific evidence indicates that cormorants have no serious negative impact on commercial and fish species (or the “forage” species they eat), other justifications needed to be concocted.

The Ministry began a campaign of misinformation designed to demonize the cormorants and rationalize the massive slaughter. It claimed that the black maples on the island were a “regionally rare” species and that cormorants were an invasive species — neither of which are true. It claimed that, because cormorant excrement killed the trees (many of which were already so old as to be dying or dead), the birds had to be killed to protect the great blue herons, great egrets, and black-crowned night-herons nesting there. But all three of those species, common and widespread and with far more nest-site options than cormorants, arrived as nesting species only after the cormorants had begun nesting in the trees.

Violating their own guidelines for activity in heron colonies, Ministry staff began a military-style assault that initially included fire-hoses, that chased herons and cormorants alike, and that caused a nesting pair of red-tailed hawks to abandon the site. Announcement that shooting would commence in 2003 was left until it was too late for animal advocates to respond, and some eight tons of cormorant bodies were buried in the thin soil of High Bluff Island. No one knows how many wounded birds escaped to die elsewhere; each morning dead birds washed ashore, to be picked up by Ministry staff at dawn. Shooting was supposed to end before eggs would hatch. Protestors were told that they were legally obliged to stay 200 meters off shore, too far to prevent, or even adequately document, the slaughter.

API Takes Action

Determined to prevent such future needless slaughter, API joined forces with Animal Alliance of Canada (AAC) and other groups to write more than 40 pages of critique of the Ministry’s actions. We met with Ministry officials and the “scientific committee” advising the Ministry (a committee that consisted entirely of wildlife managers).

No reason was ever given why the government deemed common trees more valuable than cormorants, or how it was that when left alone, cormorants and herons had co-existed in nesting colonies for millions of years. It seemed that logic didn’t matter; the decision to kill was political, not rational, fueled by hatred and ignorance, not common sense.

The following year animal advocates were prepared. API, AAC, Peaceful Parks Coalition, and others continued the political and scientific work (and managed to get the city of Toronto, with its own cormorant colony, to declare support for the species). But we knew that the shooting would begin again.

With few resources, numerous activists launched a brigade, mostly “manned” by women in canoes, kayaks, and rowboats, to stay as close to High Bluff Island as possible, thus thwarting the shooters. We discovered that the provincial ministry did not have the right to impose a 200-meter limit on boaters, so brave activists kept as close to shore as they could, some staying in their cramped, cold quarters from 4:00am until 8:30pm.

“It was heartbreaking to watch valiant parent birds trying to care for their young one moment, and crashing into the ground below, mortally wounded, the next,” said Melissa Ryall of Zoocheck-Canada.

But the tactic worked. By literally putting themselves in the line of fire, the activists reduced the kill by more than three thousand birds. They managed to end the slaughter altogether when they documented that the eggs had hatched.

The battle to protect cormorants continues. The buried cormorants were so contaminated with mercury that they had to be exhumed as environmentally hazardous. And the Ministry cut down the tallest trees, as though to spite the herons. And unfortunately, even after the shooting stopped, Ministry staff used long poles to continue to knock down cormorant nests, some of which would almost certainly contain baby birds.

API and its Canadian partners continue to work to try to prevent the killing, and we will keep our supporters apprised of developments in the treatment of cormorants across Canada and within the United States. We firmly believe that science, reason, and compassion may yet triumph over myth and hatred, and save the cormorants.

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