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News Release

Double-Crested Cormorants:
The Good, The Bad & Ugly

The population of Cormorants
has increased to the point where these
"fish-eaters" are being viewed as a reason for
the decline in the bass fishing resource…

PINTLALA, Alabama - Man against Nature. The tug-of-war between progress and protection. Federal wildlife policy vs. the landowner's rights. In today's complex world, the judgment of what's right or wrong is a fine line for federal and state wildlife agencies to walk. Take the case of the double-crested cormorant. Listed among the species protected by the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the long-necked fish-eater is viewed by many anglers as a factor in the decline of bass fishing in some waters.

As founder of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society (B.A.S.S.), Ray Scott is caught in the middle as a confirmed conservationist or as a concerned bass angler and the godfather of the world's largest bass fishing organization.

"The subject of what's right or wrong with unreasonable protection of these fish-eaters is an honest concern for the bass fishing resource," believes Scott.

"Under the law, I can't legally shoot or harass a flock of cormorants, even if they're invading my private fishing lake and destroying my fishery," points out Scott.

There's no debate that cormorants do "eat fish." The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service studies show "adults eat an average of one pound per day."

And, there's evidence, according to their own U. S. Fish & Wildlife studies, that a large cormorant colony, such as on Little Gallo Island in eastern Lake Ontario can impact the smallmouth bass fishery.

Addressing the issues in a Q & A format on its web site, the federal agency says: "The smallmouth bass population in this area of eastern Lake Ontario has been decreasing for more than a decade while the cormorant population on the lake has been increasing."

The statement continues, "There is a strong perception by some anglers in this area that cormorants are the cause of the fishery's decline."

As Scott points out, "Studies have estimated that cormorants there can consume over one million bass annually." But, the powers to be are still waiting to access the effects of this consumption on the bass population. The State of New York conducted studies, but without a conclusion or recommendation. "For now, scientists are keeping an open mind on this subject," says the U.S. Fish & Wildlife statement.

The Little Gallo Island is the largest nesting site in the Great Lakes, with some 5,800 pairs reported in 1998. In total the Great Lakes double-crested cormorants population consists of approximately 60,000 pairs in 100 colonies. Because cormorants are not typically preyed upon by other species, their population will most likely continue to increase. The only controlling factors may be disease, lack of available nesting habitat or changes in the food supply.

The species is named for the two small tufts or crests of feathers that appear for a short period on either side of the head of adult birds in breeding plumage. The double-crested cormorants are found throughout North America.

The birds in the Great Lakes population migrate south, along the Atlantic Coast and the Mississippi River drainage to over-winter in the Southeast and Gulf of Mexico.

"Here in Alabama they're often called 'water turkey' and are seen flying in a ragged V-formation, large dark birds, at first glance confused with geese," comments Scott.

The numbers will start to increase with the fall migration and they'll frequent area low-water swamps, timbered backwaters, ponds and around fish-raising hatcheries. By May the cormorants return north to breed and hatch their young.

Cormorants are expert divers, foraging underwater for fish. Fully-webbed feet propel the slim, streamlined body on dives from 8 to 20 feet. The eye muscles are specialized to allow acute vision, both above and below the water. Their feathers absorb moisture, helping the bird stay underwater for over 30 seconds per dive.

"After foraging, their habit of perching on a limb in a wing-spreading posture to dry their feathers is a trademark for identifying a cormorant," offered Scott.

Current concerns over cormorants competing for fish stocks with recreational and commercial fishermen isn't new. Public demands for cormorant control programs on the Great Lakes were put into effect from 1940s to mid-1960s. However, during this time, the double-crested cormorant population declined due more to DDT.

As fish-eaters, at the top of the food chain, the cormorant accumulates pesticides and other toxins from the flesh of their prey. The chemical contamination causes reproductive failure and young that hatched had deformities. In addition to DDT contamination, mankind's disturbances and nest destruction contributed to the population decline in the 1960s.

In the early 1970s, the population plummeted to the point nesting platforms were erected to aid their recovery. In 1972, the double-crested cormorants were added to the list of species protected by the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Today, the Great Lakes population of double-crested cormorants is at "historic highs," according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife reports. Pollution controls have lowered toxic contaminants. Their food supply is abundant. And, they are protected by federal and state laws.

"Thus, we're trapped in the preverbal 'Catch-22' situation," says Scott in viewing the problematic outcome for which the only solution is denied by the circumstances inherent in the problem. In other words, the alternatives are equally undesirable.

Scott says, "There was an incident in the Thousand Islands area of Upstate New York where local fishermen took a vigilante approach. They reportedly ambushed hundreds of cormorants on the roost, blasting them with shotguns. They violated the law, but the game laws had failed to protect their interest in the fishery."

So with increasing numbers of double-crested cormorants, these skilled fish-catchers are again being viewed as a public nuisance, a threat and competitor to an angler's success.

"Routinely, I'm getting a number of telephone calls from concerned bass fishermen," explains Scott. "They see flocks of cormorants herding fish along shallow shorelines, feeding frenzies, and just know the birds are wiping out or reducing the bass population. They're asking repeatedly: 'What can we do about it?'"

Scott says, "I've suggested call the national B.A.S.S. Headquarters and the Society's Conservation Chief Bruce Shupp to mount a concerned campaign. But, right now there's more conversation than confrontation about solving the problem."

As an overview Scott adds, "Unless you're a landowner or involved in commercial fish production there's no way to get in the loop. If you can prove the cormorants are eating your fish, the Feds may grant the pond owner or fish farmer a depredation permit to destroy the birds. But, I understand it's a three-ring circus and bureaucratic maze to sort out what agency has what responsibilities to address and control the cormorants concerns."

Scott notes, "If we declared a war on cormorants, it would be all out confusion as to what agency called the shots."

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U. S. Department of Agriculture/Wildlife Services, as well as, state fish and game agencies all play a role…different and often conflicting roles.

For instance, the U. S. Fish & Wildlife is the referee to make sure the state agencies play by the rules so not to "jeopardize cormorant populations." Because cormorants are "protected," their nests and eggs cannot be disturbed, the birds shot or captured "unless a depredation permit is first obtained from the Service."

But, the U. S. Fish & Wildlife department does not conduct "on-the-ground management." They pass the ball off to the Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Service team. Their role is to help states, organizations and individuals "resolve conflicts between people and wildlife on public and private lands." The Ag-Wildlife Service either recommends or implements wildlife management options.

"Okay, that's the bureaucratic way," says Scott, "but here's the rub for the poor pond owner asking for a permit to protect his fishery. Under the rules, the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service can't issue a depredation permit until the Department of Agriculture recommends it."

Scott notes, "By the time you get all the red tape unwound, it's a good bet the pond owner has a good case of red-ass and on the verge of calling in the vigilantes."

So, what comes next? According to the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service, regional management plans are being developed for double-crested cormorants. In the meantime, the Service is studying the cormorant population status. And, "reviewing the bird's impact on sport fish and commercial fisheries in natural and artificial settings."

Here's the bottom line, according to Scott's thinking. "Nothing is going to happen in the near term unless bass anglers, bass clubs and state B.A.S.S. Federations get involved in these issues and demand answers and near-term solutions."

The U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service is on record with the comment: "Any significant policy changes must be based on sound science, and would be implemented only after coordination with appropriate federal and state resource agencies and the concerned public."

As indicated there's a fine line between Nature and Man's management control over the Cormorant's role in this "The Good, The Bad & Ugly" situation. In the Court of Public Opinion, given the task of defending a "water turkey" charged as an accessory to the decline in the bass population, in his opinion, says Scott: "It's time to cross the line."

(Editor's Note: To learn about the efforts of the New York Sate Department of Environmental Conservation and the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service's action to issue a migratory bird depredation permit to take cormorants on Lake Ontario Islands, New York, check the Fish & Wildlife Service's website: http://www.fws.gov .)

The double-crested Cormorant can often be observed in this spread-wing behavior. The purpose is thought mainly to dry its wings. Or, as some scientist suggest, to signal to other cormorants a successful forage and fish-food is available.

Cormorant's feathers adsorb, rather than repel, water. Being less buoyant, the bird can dive, remain submerged and actively chase after fish. Routinely, double crested Cormorants dive from 8-to-20 feet deep, and stay underwater for periods of 30 seconds.