The Hamilton Spectator

Cormorants in the crosshairs

A new bill would put them on the shoot-to-kill list

- Thomas Walkom’s column appears in Torstar newspapers. THOMAS WALKOM

Pity the double-crested cormorant. This remarkably resilient bird has long been in government’s crosshairs. Now the Ontario legislatur­e is considerin­g a bill that would put it, literally, on the shoot-to-kill list.

Earlier this month, MPPs quietly gave second reading approval to a private member’s bill that would add the cormorant to the list of birds — including crows and starlings — that can be shot on sight.

Conservati­ve MPP Robert Bailey (Sarnia-Lambton) told the legislatur­e that his Bill 205 is designed to deal with what he called a population explosion among cormorants.

But the bill also echoes recommenda­tions from the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, which has been calling for just such a law.

The angling lobby has never much liked cormorants, arguing they eat fish that might otherwise be caught by humans.

In fact, according to the federal government’s Canadian Wildlife Service, that’s not true. Studies show that less than two per cent of a cormorant’s diet consists of sport fish, such as lake trout or salmon.

And less than one per cent of a cormorant’s diet is made up of the fish that sport fish eat.

Cormorants do eat a lot. That’s true. But they tend to eat fish that humans don’t want.

As the federal environmen­t department notes in one publicatio­n: “Studies have repeatedly shown that, in a natural environmen­t, cormorants feed primarily on small, non-commercial, shallow-water fish.”

Nor is the cormorant population exploding exponentia­lly. The federal government no longer tracks cormorants on the Great Lakes. But when it stopped doing so, in 2011, the rate of population increase had started to level off.

So what is it about the cormorant that so irks people?

Partly, it is the excrement. Like herons, cormorants nest in colonies. They defecate a lot. Their droppings smell foul. They can also kill the vegetation surroundin­g the trees in which they nest.

But there is also something about cormorants that is magnificen­tly alarming. They travel in packs, gliding just a few feet off the surface as they traverse lakes searching for food. They don’t get out of the way.

To run into a convoy of cormorants on Lake Ontario is rather like running into a bike gang.

They are impressive; they are also slightly intimidati­ng.

Certainly, the human-cormorant relationsh­ip has not been an easy one. While experts agree the bird is native to Ontario, there is some dispute as to when they arrived on the Great Lakes.

But by the 1940s, commercial fishermen were already complainin­g that cormorants were eating into their business. (As it turns out, the real problem facing the Great Lakes fishery at the time was human over-fishing).

Still, the provincial government obliged by destroying cormorant eggs.

It was inadverten­tly aided in this by the dumping, into the Great Lakes, of lethal contaminan­ts such as DDT that weakened cormorant eggs.

By 1970, cormorants on the Great Lakes had been almost entirely wiped out.

Their recovery, once these contaminan­ts had been banned, was near miraculous. The cormorant population really did explode — from a handful of nesting pairs to thousands.

With this rebound came a renewal of the old rivalry between birds and humans. The fishing lobby began to complain again. In 2004 and 2005, Ontario’s Liberal government authorized a mass cull of cormorants on two small islands in a provincial park near Trenton — technicall­y to protect the environmen­t.

More than 11,000 birds were shot. Eggs in more than 3,000 ground nests were oiled to prevent hatching.

More than 2,000 tree nests were destroyed.

Now, in Bill 205, they face a new threat — vigilante justice.

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