Toronto group vows to block cormorant cull in this region
Written by Brockville Recorder & Times   
Friday, 18 November 2005 10:52

A Toronto-based organization that fought a cormorant cull at Presqu'ile Park will battle any proposal to control the population of the fish-eating bird in the Thousand Islands.

Anna Marie Valastro, co-director of the Peaceful Parks Coalition, said efforts by New York State politicians and Leeds-Grenville MPP Bob Runciman to implement a local cull are nothing more than "political opportunism" that ignores the real cause of the declining fishery - human overfishing.

"We feel the double-crested cormorants are just being scapegoated. You see it all the time," said Valastro, who compared it to the east coast cull of seals which are blamed for the decline of the cod fishery that was overfished by humans for years.

"It's the same old debate," said Valastro.

"They don't want to explore the effects of human activity (but) it's more likely than not it's human activity that's causing the decline of fisheries in the Great Lakes."

After years of declining cormorant numbers caused by the widespread use of DDT during the 1950s, the bird population has been on the upswing since the mid-1990s.

Valastro said she is aware of the breed's habit of stripping trees of vegetation around their nesting grounds, eventually killing many, and eating large quantities of panfish.

She said dead trees play an important role for other species such as woodpeckers to thrive and the cormorant patterns were an established part of the ecology long ago.

Moreover, she dismisses the claims of sportsmen that they want to reduce the number of birds because of their concern for the environment.

"It's just anglers and hunters trying to paint themselves as tree-huggers," said Valastro.

Runciman, who has urged anglers and recreational users of the river to voice their concerns, said he will be meeting informally early next year with New York State Senator Jim Wright about many common concerns including damage wrought to the fishery by cormorants.

Wright has called for a cull of the birds by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) because most of the cormorants nest on the Canadian side of the river, but the damage to the fishery is apparent on both sides.

Runciman dismissed allegations that he is being opportunistic.

Instead, he said he is responding to the interests of his constituents and his own observations as a lifelong resident on the St. Lawrence River shoreline about damage caused by the cormorants.

"Anybody who lives in Brockville just has to look at the Three Sisters Islands," he said, referring to extensive damage caused by the cormorants on the small St. Lawrence islands near Brockville's eastern boundary.

"These are serious, legitimate concerns and as the representative of the local riding it's my responsibility to raise these issues. I'm doing my job."

Runciman also fired back with his own contention that the Peaceful Parks Coalition "is a very radical organization" that interfered with a scheduled cull of cormorants last spring at Presqu'ile Park near Brighton.

He noted the cormorant problem has been exacerbated by the invasion of zebra mussels which have stripped the river and Lake Ontario of many weedbeds where fish could hide from the birds.

Moreover, there are controls on human fishing activity in terms of season and catch limits to prevent overfishing, he said.

In the last couple of years, for instance, the MNR imposed local limits on perch because of the declining numbers of that species, said Runciman.

"What's happening (in the case of cormorants) is there's no control over this at all."

James Dexter, owner of Chasen Fish Charters, said there's no doubt cormorants are playing havoc with the fishery.

"They should have had a cull three or four years ago," said Dexter.

"It's not too late (yet) but if it keeps going the way it is, they won't have to do anything because there won't be any fish left anymore."

He said he can't understand why the MNR hasn't instituted a cull in this area following studies in both countries that identify the bird as a threat to the fishery.

"They eat a pile of fish (and) they take the best ones. They are doing an awful lot of damage."

Dexter said most of his charters are on Lake Ontario and he's encountered fish there that show signs of a narrow escape from the cormorants.

"We see fish out there that have cormorant marks down the side of them. You see lots of fish like that."

Meanwhile, a regional environmental group based out of Clayton, N.Y. stands behind a cull of cormorants instituted at the east end of Lake Ontario by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

The DEC is also urging Ontario's MNR to cull cormorant populations on the Canadian side of the river and that, too, is supported by Save The River, said assistant director Karen Lago.

Lago said the question is a difficult one for members who don't want to see the birds killed if it can be prevented.

However, members are also aware of the threat to the fishery caused by cormorants as well as invasive species such as the zebra mussel brought into the Great Lakes in the ballast of commercial freighters.

"It has been the Save The River position in the past that we will support the DEC actions," said Lago.

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