Cormorant Controversy
Written by Bay City Times   
Monday, 18 July 2005 10:05
The charter crew was fishing Lake Huron near Alpena when a green blip registered on the boat's radar.

"Storm approaching," the captain said. The blip looked like any other storm cloud they'd encountered on Thunder Bay.

But on this particular summer day in 1996, a different black cloud - 20 years in the making - had come to roost in northern Lake Huron.

"It was cormorants," Alpena fishing guide Brad MacNeill recalled on a recent day. "A mile-long string of big, black birds. Flying low to the water. We watched them come in, coordinate and gang up on the forage fish. It was an amazing sight."

Amazing by any estimate. Lake Huron's double-crested cormorant, a federally protected bird, hovered near extinction just 30 years ago.

Today the goose-sized fish-eater numbers some 2 million in North America. A majority - some 70 percent - congregate around the Great Lakes from April to September for breeding. Federal wildlife managers estimate some 60,000 adult cormorants nest in Michigan.

To environmentalists, the cormorant's wildly successful recovery makes it the poster child for Great Lakes water quality.

But to anglers and growing numbers of resort-town business owners, the cormorant is the center point of a decimating fish population that's tied to many northern livelihoods.

Wherever the truth lies, the cormorant comeback prompted a dramatic federal rule change. Effective in 2004, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service "depredation order" now allows for cormorant population controls - including killing.

Three groups - state wildlife agencies, American Indian tribes and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 24 states including Michigan - can manage cormorants when and where they destroy public resources.

Wildlife managers say it was fishermen's fury, demonstrated in the illegal shooting of some 500 nesting cormorants five years ago on northern Lake Huron's Little Charity Island, that helped precipitate the federal review. The island kill left hundreds more fledgling and yet-to-hatch cormorants to die from exposure. The crime remains unsolved.

"Charity Island became one of those indicators of how much pent-up concern and animosity there was," said Peter Butchko, state director for the USDA's Wildlife Services, the lead agency in Michigan's cormorant control projects.

Taking control

By 2003, cormorant research was backing up public outcry against the bird, prompting the rule change, federal policy makers said.

Research concluded that cormorants were damaging some localized fisheries. Policy-makers reasoned that the bird was destroying vegetation and habitat where other, more fragile, colonial water birds nested.

Today, 18 months after the rules took effect, Michigan stands at the vanguard of U.S. cormorant control, wildlife managers say. Northeast Michigan is front and center.

Michigan, unlike many in the Great Lakes region, received federal funding for cormorant control projects along with its new authority, wildlife managers explain.

Nowhere are resources more committed than on northern Lake Huron's Les Cheneaux Islands. The 36-island archipelago northeast of Mackinac Island had been renowned for generations for its yellow perch fishery.

No longer. Les Cheneaux's century-old resort fishing industry vanished in less than a decade, and with it, the islands' social and economic fabric.

"It wasn't just a cyclical decline in the perch," Butchko said. "It was the unprecedented collapse of a huge industry."

The yellow perch crash coincided with exploding cormorant numbers, researchers and anglers say. The migratory water bird found Les Cheneaux's protected, predator-free islands attractive breeding grounds.

So it made sense for federal wildlife managers to launch pilot control measures on Les Cheneaux's major cormorant colonies first, in 2004.

State and federal agents began last summer by shooting 910 cormorants, nearly 15 percent of the islands' adult population. Crews also oiled eggs in 3,200 cormorant nests to eliminate reproduction. Oiling plugs the porous eggshells, suffocating the embryo inside.

This summer, the USDA and Michigan Department of Natural Resources raised the stakes. Crews are working to shoot 25 percent of the islands' adult cormorants and continue egg oiling.

Though Les Cheneaux already shows signs of improved fishing, researchers say the project is in its infancy. They'll need another year's data to gauge what's happening above and beneath the lake - to cormorants and fish - and refine a management approach for future controls, they say.

Even so, wildlife managers expanded cormorant controls this year to Alpena. Here on Thunder Bay, several remote islands have created well-established cormorant nesting sites.

In April, wildlife managers began controls at three cormorant feeding sites - a state-owned boat launch on Lake Huron called Rockport and neighboring Long and Grand lakes.

The three waterways had shown significant fish declines in recent years, paralleled by heavy cormorant foraging, managers say.

Volunteer crews, supervised by state and federal managers, worked round-the-clock in April and May to keep cormorants from the waters. The period marks the birds' migration to northern Lake Huron breeding grounds. The cormorants' arrival also coincides with fish spawning - and vulnerability.

To protect the Alpena fisheries, volunteers harassed the birds, shooting loud fireworks from boats. Volunteers were authorized to shoot the most stubborn of the birds. The fine for unauthorized shooting of a single cormorant: $2,500.

The project got rave reviews from even the most skeptical anglers who participated, including Lori Pahlkotter.

The Alpena mother runs a Long Lake bait shop and wholesale tackle business and has fished the area all her life. The USDA recruited Pahlkotter to coordinate volunteers.

"The fish decline here has put a big hurt on us these last few years," said Pahlkotter, 46. "Winters are bad, too, because the ice fishing bottomed out. It all happened when the cormorant showed up."

Though the Alpena control projects are too small-scale for her tastes, Pahlkotter and other volunteers agree that it accomplished its immediate goal. The birds spooked from all three local waterways, and the harassment saved the fish, they say. Wildlife agencies plan to repeat the program next year.

Too little, too late?

Still, many more sportsmen, and their legislators, are fed up. DNR and USDA efforts are too little, too late, they charge.

They ask: Why should an aggressive predator, so overly abundant, continue getting government protection when fishery resources are jeopardized?

"They're eating us out of house and home," said Steve Porter, owner of Bunyon Town bait shop in Oscoda. "The consensus among sport fishermen is that the fishery won't recover until they kill the cormorants. Killing them in little batches isn't enough.

"It's like exterminating a fraction of the termites in your home. The problem will continue."

Cormorant animosity is spreading. As Lake Huron forage fish populations plummet, the ever-adaptable cormorant has turned inland to feed on neighboring lakes and rivers.

It's hard, anglers say, to argue with their own eyes. Watch the open water and see first-hand the bird's astounding capacity to fish, they say.

The black flocks arrive in formation, coordinate their ranks, then dive deep - up to 100 feet, biologists say. As one flock surfaces, fish in bills, another waits behind to leapfrog the routine. So the feeding frenzy continues.

A single cormorant eats a pound of fish daily, biologists say. A thousand birds? That's a ton of fish every other day, 15 tons each month. No wonder anglers conclude cormorants are culprit No. 1 in the declining fish populations.

The cormorant's diet, highly flexible, also reflects what's most abundant and easiest to catch in any given area, researchers add. Documented stomach contents range from 2-inch fry to 22-inch walleye and an occasional turtle.

But wildlife biologists caution against scape-goating cormorants. Cormorants can alter ecosystems and damage local fisheries, they concede. But more often, multiple factors influence fish populations. The cormorant is typically one factor, but not the primary factor, biologists say.

Other major players include, for example, the zebra mussel. The exotic species has wreaked havoc on Great Lakes fish production. The state's salmon stocking program and consecutive tough winters for forage fish are all factors in recent fishery changes, researchers say.

"Just because an area has nesting cormorants doesn't mean it has a fish problem," said Ray Rustem, state Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist and non-game program supervisor.

"You have to interpret factors in combination. If there's lots of fishing pressure on a limited fish population, for example, the fishery can be more vulnerable to the effects of cormorants," he said.

"Cormorants are in the mix, but not necessarily the primary culprit."

The long view

What's next for Michigan, armed with new cormorant rules, is to compile the year's new data in Les Cheneaux, Alpena and elsewhere. Then, based on the science, planners need to begin setting priorities on when and where to next exercise control measures.

"We appreciate that the public is eager, even passionate, for more dramatic action. They're tired of studies," said Dave Fielder, DNR fisheries researcher. "But too many people are willing to blame the cormorant.

"In the big scheme, we're also still pretty short on research in this cormorant/fisheries equation."

Patience continues to wear thin among some northern residents. Many bought homes and moved north to build a life around their fishing passion.

Now the fish are diminished, and cormorants are plentiful.

"Why am I paying the price for the government's overprotection of these birds?" asked Don Wassman, who retired on Oscoda's Van Etten Lake 12 years ago.

"For the last two years, I've watched the cormorants come in here and slaughter the fish. I'm ready to start shooting just to draw attention to this ridiculous situation."

Wildlife managers urge the impassioned to join their volunteer ranks, helping document and report cormorant behavior and numbers. They caution that cormorant killing is still illegal unless authorized.

"We've got to take a longer view of our natural resources and where we want them to be," Rustem said. "It's taking years, for example, to bring white-tail deer numbers back in to check from their overabundance.

"We've got to take the same, science-based approach to the cormorant controversy."

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