Who equates the words “fall harvest” with the slaughter of inedible birds? The Government of Ontario, apparently. On July 30th it announced the introduction of a fall hunting season for double-crested cormorants, using these fine words: “Fall Harvest for Double-Crested Cormorants Introduced to Protect Local Ecosystems.” The ugly truth is that from September 15 to December 31, anyone with a shotgun and a hunting licence will be able to kill up to 15 cormorants a day.
Wanton disregard for wildlife bothers me at any time, but in this case, dressing up the carnage as “protecting fish and wildlife habitat,” as the government has done, is particularly abhorrent. Is it too much to ask that wildlife management be based on fact, not fiction?
Here are seven good reasons to condemn the hunt:
1. The government’s approach is not science-based. There is no population management objective or target. There is no requirement for hunters to report what they’ve killed. There are no measures in place to control how many cormorants will ultimately be killed locally or regionally.
2. There is no compelling evidence that cormorants have had a significant negative impact on commercial or sport fish stocks. According to the Canadian Wildlife Service, “studies have repeatedly shown that in a natural environment, cormorants feed primarily on small, largely non-commercial, shallow-water fish.” Less than two percent of their diet consists of ‘sport fish’ such as lake trout or salmon.
3. Non-native fish are an important part of the cormorant’s diet. Professor Jim Quinn from McMaster University confirms that studies he has been involved with reveal that cormorants are feeding mostly on problem fish such as round goby and alewife. A study on the Niagara River showed that up to 85 percent of the cormorants’ diet during the breeding season consisted of the invasive, non-native round goby.
4. While it is true that the ammonia-rich droppings of cormorants kill trees and other vegetation, concerns about property damage are an invalid justification for the hunt. Property owners already have recourse, under section 31 of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, to harass, capture or kill cormorants if they’re causing or are about to cause property damage.
5. Few people consider cormorants to be edible. So the government’s pretence that hunters “may choose to consume them” is weak at best. Law-abiding hunters who don’t want to eat them will have to either deliver the dead birds to a disposal facility or bury them on their property. (How likely is it instead that the carcasses will just be left to rot and wash up on nearby shorelines?)
6. Common loons may well fall victim to the hunt as they are difficult for many people to distinguish from cormorants on the water.
Cormorants have long been maligned and persecuted in North America. The fall hunt is just another chapter in that regrettable history. If the government were serious about “protecting fish and wildlife habitat” it would focus its attention on halting the destruction wreaked by human activities rather than scapegoating cormorants.
Anne Bell has been directing Ontario Nature’s conservation and education programs since 2007. She loves to go birding, camping, swimming, and skiing and to play hockey with her husband and two daughters, Kestrel and Castilleja.