LETTERS: Apex predator cormorants play an important role in ecology

Dear Editor:

Those of us opposing Premier Doug Ford’s proposal to change the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act to allow hunters to let the meat of game spoil do so in part out of humanitarian and environmental concerns. We also are appalled by the lack of either prior public and scientific consultation and concern that, after a century of steady progression in wild game management, Ford has taken a huge step back over a century, well before the science of ecology came into being and the role of apex predators in healthy ecosystems was understood. He’s still in the depths of 19th century mind-set (although even then visionaries knew better, just were ignored).

The claim that double-crested cormorants have done “…a massive amount of damage to fish populations everywhere it seems…” is unsubstantiated. In 2003, five Canadian and American ornithologists did a search of pertinent literature on the effects of cormorant predation on fish caught by commercial and sport angling, entitled ‘Review of the Double-crested Cormorant Management Plan, 2003: Final Report of the AOU Conservation Committee’s Panel,’ published by the (then) American Ornithologists Union (now the American Ornithological Society). The writers were from Tufts University, Harvard, University of Massachusetts, Duke University and Simon Fraser University. They found that except in contrived conditions, such as impoundments, cormorants generally had little to no impact on either such fish, or the forage fish they consume.

As the Department of Natural Resources for Minnesota says on their website, predation is primarily compensatory, which “…is common in all animal populations and this type of mortality [by cormorants] does not decrease fish populations.”

We have, I realize, entered an era of anti-science, anti-fact-based policy decisions. It’s easier to scapegoat predators for declines in what we see as “our” fish and game, then learn that the term “compensatory predation” means the percentage of prey taken is below the number needed to allow replacement.

World-wide, there are 39 species of cormorant, 11 threatened species, one now extinct. Not a single one has ever eliminated any species of fish of any kind, anywhere. We can’t say the same of humans, but we are notoriously loathe to take responsibility for our own actions.

Even though Conservation Biology published a paper in 2014 claiming an extinction rate, “…about 1,000 times more frequent now than in the 60 million years before people came along,” it is easier to find a scapegoat than to take responsibility. Even though human population size is now pushing the eight billion mark, it’s claimed there are “too many” cormorants, a species found from Alaska to Newfoundland and south into Mexico, but is less numerous than humans in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) spokesperson Lauren Tonelli’s concern about urban cormorants shows ignorance of what science-based management can achieve. The world’s largest colony of the species is located in Canada’s largest city, Toronto. When the birds started nesting in trees where they weren’t wanted, they were dissuaded simply be having people walk under the trees before “nest site tenacity” could form. Other non-lethal methods have successfully maintained a vibrant mixed cormorant, heron and egret colony. Ralph Toninger, associate director, Resource Management Projects at Toronto and Region Conservation Authority tells me the most abundant fish at Toronto’s Leslie Street Spit occur nearest that colony.
Similarly, the Hamilton Conservation Authority’s Gord Costie says, “cormorants are not a nuisance or in high numbers.” Cormorants in Hamilton Harbor are indicators of large fish populations, including round gobies, an invasive species deleterious to native fish stocks and consumed in huge numbers by cormorants.

OFAH might want to drop that “H.” Hunting as the hunters I know define it involves fair chase, utilization of the meat, not killing parents of dependent young who in this case will die horribly of dehydration, hypothermia or hunger and is managed sustainably to maintain the population. Premier Ford’s policy caters to what both my hunting friends and I call “slob hunters.”

Premier Ford has also introduced omnibus Bill 57 containing a proposal to banish oversight by the Environmental Commissioner, decrease public trust, government transparency and accountability, and is at odds with the already ineffective federal initiative to control climate change. Cormorant hunting is symptomatic of Draconian authoritarianism providing simplistic panaceas to his trusting base and those wary of facts and expertise, and not willing to own the effects of their own actions.

We used to suppress every forest fire until forest ecologists realized that burning could be part of the ecological process, forming habitat, renewing forests and preventing mega-fires. Similarly, the effects on habitat of everything from beaver to elephants has been decried, only to learn as ecological insights developed, that species diversity and biomass increased overall. The total number of trees lost to cormorants would constitute the kind of medium sized woodlot cleared any given day for “development.” We are no longer used to seeing large concentrations of bison, passenger pigeons, northern cod, Eskimo curlews, or other once abundant species. It has been demonstrated by American scientists Linda Wires and Francine Cuthbert in 2006 that cormorants also once were abundant when there were maximum numbers of fish and trees. We wiped them out before, nearly, and now we are about to do it again. That should not be allowed.

Barry Kent MacKay

Director of Canadian and Special Programs

Born Free