Cormorant Kill

(This column was first published in the August 10, 1998 Buffalo News.)

    Recently 800 cormorants were massacred on Little Galoo Island in Henderson Harbor near Watertown.  Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner John Cahill called it "an act of savage brutality."

    Among the dead and dying birds conservation officers found hundreds of shotgun shells.  Evidence suggests that the cormorants were killed by locals who either fish themselves or charter boats for others in eastern Lake Ontario where the sport fish population has plummeted.  DEC staff and the police are currently investigating this violation of the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

    No one should defend this crime but it is reasonable, I believe, to consider the underlying very serious conservation problem.  My own experience may help to place it in perspective.

    For several years during the 1940s I joined a team of bird banders to ring gull nestlings on Little Galoo Island.  We motored out to an island encompassing several acres which at that time was still covered with wildflowers, shrubs and trees.  But over those few years I witnessed a decline in this vegetation due to the excrement of thousands of gulls.  Also the island tern colony was eradicated by the last year I worked there.  The last tern I found there had been killed by a single peck in its back.

    During my final year we were excited to observe cormorants nesting on a nearby islet, the first Lake Ontario breeding record for this seabird.

    Today, forty years later, Little Galoo and many other uninhabited islands of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain regions are wastelands, foul smelling guano fields completely taken over by cormorants.  Their Great Lakes population has risen exponentially.  For example, from less than a dozen birds on the Niagara Frontier in October 1986, regional Buffalo Ornithological Society census takers counted over 900 last year.

    The impact of these birds on fish populations is being debated.  The fishing community cites the crash of game fish numbers that correlates almost exactly with the increase in cormorants.  Ron Ditch, a Henderson Harbor charter boat operator, supports this observation with his film of cormorants consuming hundreds of trout just after they were released by DEC personnel into Lake Ontario.  On the other hand, the few available biological studies suggest that cormorants consume a meager diet of game fish -- less than two percent of what they eat in one study.  Necessary additional studies take time; meanwhile the local guides losing their livelihoods are increasingly frustrated.

    So we have another wildlife overpopulation dilemma.  And this wanton act has arrayed most conservationists against the fishing community.  I do not join them.

    Of course the felons who broke the law should be found and prosecuted, but the underlying situation demands a reasonable solution.  And the cormorant issue represents just one of these overpopulation emergencies that are not yet being addressed.  With them belong gulls, crows, Canada geese, mallards and, of course, among mammals -- white-tailed deer.

    What many animal preservationists fail to take into account is that these problems go beyond the species level.  Often they affect us: jobs are lost and personal property is damaged.  (An underlying concern is whether non-human animals should receive equal status with humans.)  Also and at least as important, these species also affect the overall ecological community.  Urban crows have already eliminated our regional nighthawk population; deer are everywhere obliterating rare wildflowers; where gulls and cormorants nest they destroy virtually all other life.

    We have through our past actions certainly contributed to our wildlife problems, but I don't believe that we should now adopt the animal rights philosophy: "Let nature take its course."

    These are serious matters and we exacerbate them today by our procrastination -- not just in Henderson Harbor but in western New York as well.

For two other quite different approaches to this matter, see Tom LeBlanc's cormorant paper and the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife Report on ring-billed gull and double-crested cormorant problems on Lake Champlain and elsewhere in Vermont and New York. For information about national and international migratory bird regulations, see the US FWS Bird Laws and Treaties Index.