Feds release impact statement on Cormorants
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently released a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for public review that will guide development of a nationwide management strategy for double-crested Cormorants.
The EIS analyzes various options for managing rapidly growing cormorant populations to reduce conflicts with recreational anglers, commercial aquaculture and other human activates.
"The double-crested cormorant was given Federal protection during serious population declines in the 1970s. Today, we face a different problem as we seek to achieve sustainable populations and reduce conflicts with human activities," said Tom Melius, the Service's assistant director for Migratory Birds and State Programs.
Cormorants have been federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act since 1972, when they were given protection after their populations dropped precipitously due to use of the pesticide DDT, killings by humans and the overall declining health of many ecosystems, especially that of the Great Lakes. Today, the population is at historic highs, due in large part to the presence of ample food in their summer and winter ranges, federal and state protection, and reduced contaminant levels.
Between 1970 and 1991, in the Great Lakes region of the United States and Canada the number of double-crested cormorant nests increased from 89 to 38,000, with an average annual increase of 29 percent. By 1997, the Great Lakes population had reached approximately 93,000 pairs. The total population of double-crested cormorants in the U.S. and Canada has most recently been estimated at approximately 2 million birds.
The population resurgence of double-crested cormorants has led to increasing concern about the birds' impact on commercial and recreational fishery resources.
The draft EIS evaluates six management alternatives, including such options as continuing current management practices, implementing only non-lethal management techniques, issuing a new Depredation Order to address public resource conflicts (the Service's proposed alternative) and establishing frameworks for a cormorant hunting season.
Cormorants and other waterbirds such as pelicans and herons can have adverse impacts on fish populations when fish are concentrated in artificially high numbers - conditions such as those found at fish farms, hatcheries, and sites where hatchery-reared fish are released. The Service has previously taken action to protect fish in these situations.
In 1998, the Service issued a Depredation Order authorizing commercial freshwater aquaculture producers in 13 States (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas) to take double-crested cormorants, without a Federal permit, when cormorants were found committing or about to commit depredations to aquaculture stocks.
The Depredation Order states that double-crested cormorants may be taken by shooting only during daylight hours, and only when necessary to protect freshwater commercial aquaculture and State-operated hatchery stocks and that such actions must be carried out in conjunction with a non-lethal harassment program.
The 1998 Aquaculture Depredation Order does not address impacts on commercial and recreational fisheries. The effect of cormorants on fish populations in open waters is less clear than at aquaculture facilities. In some cases, research suggests that cormorants appear to be capable of taking numbers of sport fish significant enough to have a negative impact on catch rates.
A recent study conducted on New York's Oneida Lake and eastern Lake Ontario has revealed that summer resident and migrating cormorants can diminish the number of fish of catchable size available to anglers. However, the majority of research studies conducted worldwide have shown that while cormorants can, and often do, take fish species that are valued in commercial and sport fisheries, those species usually make up a very small proportion of the birds' diet.
The Service believes that at this time, there is no sufficient scientific evidence to justify controlling cormorants on a national level to benefit open water commercial fisheries. Where site-specific problems are significant, the Service's practice is, and will continue to be, to issue depredation permits to alleviate conflicts outside the authority of the depredation orders.
The Service's proposed action would establish a new Depredation Order authorizing State, Tribal, and Federal land management agencies to implement a double-crested cormorant management program, while maintaining Federal oversight of populations via reporting and monitoring requirements to ensure sustainable populations. Control activities carried out under this new depredation order would take place on public and private lands and waters where double-crested cormorant populations are demonstrably having a negative impact on public resources. Under this action, the 1998 Aquaculture Depredation Order would continue to allow cormorants to be taken at commercial freshwater aquaculture facilities and State-owned fish hatcheries in 13 States and would be expanded to include winter roost control by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services Program in those States. A Service regulation prohibiting lethal control of cormorants under most circumstances at National Fish Hatcheries would be revoked.
The Service held a series of scoping meetings in the spring and summer of 2000 to gather initial public comments on potential concerns and management options to be addressed in the EIS. A series of similar public meetings was held to discuss the draft EIS and gather public comments in December and January of 2001. The EIS is now final.
Requests for copies of the FEIS should be mailed to: Cormorant Project Leader, Division of Migratory BirdManagement, 4401 N. Fairfax Drive, MBSP-4107, Arlington, VA 22203. Copies of the FEIS can also be downloaded from the Division of Migratory Bird Management web site at: http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/CurrentBirdIssues/Management/cormorant/cormorant.html. For further information, click the link or call the division at (703) 358-1714.
Update: FEIS is complete and contains a significant managment alternative called the Public Resource Depredation Order Alternative. This alternative would establish a new public resource depredation order authorizing certain public agencies to implement a cormorant management program, while maintaining Federal oversight of cormorant populations via reporting and monitoring requirements. Control activities under authority of this new depredation order must be intended to alleviate damages to public resources such as fish, wildlife, and vegetation. The aquaculture depredation order would be expanded to allow winter roost control by USDA Wildlife Services professionals. Lethal control of double-crested cormorants would be authorized at State and Federal fish hatcheries. Depredation permits would continue to be used to address conflicts not covered under the depredation orders. Population monitoring on breeding grounds would be conducted at regular intervals. This change gives more cormorant management authority to the agencies that are best-suited to address local problems, while maintaining a degree of Federal oversight through reporting and evaluation requirements. For more information, please visit http://www.fws.gov/migratorybirds/CurrentBirdIssues/Management/cormorant/cormorant.html.