The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has crafted a new plan to address double-crested cormorant conflicts in the US.
It proposes killing as many as 77,000 of the migratory birds in the Mississippi and Central flyways each year. That covers 24 states, including Michigan. The FWS estimates the population in the region is about 500,000 migrating cormorants, which nest in Canada, the Great Lakes and other parts of the upper Midwest.
The double-crested cormorant is a protected species of waterbird that has historically created problems for shoreline communities. They destroy vegetation and are blamed for declining fish populations in some places.
The new proposal from the FWS addresses the question of cormorant impacts on wild fish.
“They’re very good at catching fish. They eat about a pound a day,” said Rachel Pierce, waterbird biologist with the FWS.
The FWS released this plan on June 5 in the form of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement. The draft offers five plans of action, four of which permit the killing of up to 123,157 cormorants nationwide.
The goal is not to lower the cormorant population, Pierce said. It should be just enough to address local conflicts while making sure the population is sustained.
With about 60,000 cormorants nesting in the Great Lakes region, the species raises the ire of many local sport fishermen. The FWS does not agree that the birds cause widespread harm to wild fisheries but acknowledges there have been problems in certain places like the Les Cheneaux Islands and Brevoort Lake.
Although the FWS’s approach may be conservative, Randy Claramunt with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources said it permits lethal control of cormorants to protect fish and would be a step in the right direction.
“Even if it is not at the level of control that fisheries managers desire, it is a substantial improvement over past approaches,” he said.
During the last order from 2003-2016, the FWS was accused of having no real hold on the cormorant situation. Pierce says states were deputizing citizens and not requiring them to report how many birds they killed.
“That was definitely on us,” Pierce said. “But since then, I think we’ve been very careful and mindful of how we move forward.”
The control program was very effective in Michigan, reducing the number of nesting birds to a third over a decade. But problems with federal management led to a lawsuit and a judge closed it down in 2016.
This time, the FWS’s preferred plan of action is to give each state a cap on how many birds they can take. They also plan on creating a detailed monitoring system to make sure that all states are taking birds within their specified limits.
The FWS is encouraging the public to comment on their DEIS for the next 40 days before deciding on one of the five proposed courses of action.