What to do with the double-crested cormorant

By MPP Toby Barrett

Since my days as Parliamentary Assistant to the Ministry of Natural Resources 15 years ago, cormorants have been a problem, and a controversial one. Anglers on Long Point Bay tell me cormorants are the most common birds they see. There are often large numbers on the EC-10 channel marker, around Bluff Bar and Gravelly Bay.

As the MPP for a riding where both commercial and recreational fishing are important, fish populations remain a common topic of conversation – and cormorants have an impact on fish populations. That’s why I voted for Bill 205, The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Amendment Act.

Bill 205 amends the Fish Wildlife Conservation Act  of 1997 to place cormorants in a category of birds with crows, cowbirds, grackles, house sparrows and starlings that allows hunting and trapping. Several adjacent states have taken action over the years, similar to what is suggested in Bill 205 – actions recently rescinded by a U.S. federal court.

Double-crested cormorants are large-fishing eating birds. According to Environment Canada, the cormorant did not originally nest in the Great Lakes region. Reports of the birds first started to appear around 1913, near Lake Superior. Cormorant populations fell in the 1970s, likely due to DDT and other pesticides.

A population count from 1973 found 125 nesting pairs in the Great Lakes. The latest statistics from the Canadian government show the population exploded and was at more than 58,000 in 2009. Some bird count surveys suggest the population is increasing at 7 per cent per year. This is not sustainable and is stressing delicate ecosystems.

Double-crested cormorants consume 20 to 25 per cent of their body weight daily in fish. That equates to about a pound per bird each day. Multiply that by the thousands of cormorants and these equates to a lot of fish.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources found cormorant prey selection depends on the abundance, availability and catchability of fish near their colonies. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation associated declines in smallmouth bass and perch numbers in eastern Lake Ontario with cormorant population increases. An experiment on New York’s Oneida Lake, which is a laboratory for Cornell University, found cormorants at blame for decreasing fish numbers.

Felix Barbetti, a retired manager with our area MNR witnessed cormorants take over artificial nesting structures for terns. They also push out great egrets and blue herons, he believes, and damage bait fish numbers.

Fish consumption is not the only problem with huge bird numbers – there is also guano. A colony of cormorants decimated native ecosystems on Middle Island, a small unpopulated island south of Pelee Island and the most southerly point in Canada.

But apart from experiments with egg oiling on Lake Huron, no solutions are in place.

I’m not advocating mass culling, but am suggesting government finally take action in consultation with the public. In light of cutbacks to the Ministry of Natural Resources, there aren’t enough staff to address the explosion in cormorant numbers.

By failing to address the cormorant problem, there is a shift in the balance of the ecosystem. Things need to be brought into balance before they become too large to handle and the impact on fish is more severe. Bill 205 can address that shift.