Cormorants will be safe from sharp shooters in the Great Lakes this spring. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is not ready to restart a program that allowed lethal control of the birds to protect sport fish, and the agency says it might be years away.
For more than a decade, the federal government allowed double-crested cormorants to be killed in 24 states in the eastern U.S. In the Great Lakes, it was mainly done to protect sport fish like perch and bass.
Last spring a federal judge stopped the program. He said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wasn’t doing the research on cormorants necessary to justify killing them.
Sport fishing groups hoped that research would have been done by now and the program could resume. But Jim Johnson, a retired fisheries biologist involved with a citizens group for Lake Huron, says he can’t even find anyone at Fish and Wildlife working on the issue.
“Maybe they have assigned somebody," says Johnson. "But we can’t find anybody to say, ‘oh yeah, I’m working on it.’”
U.S. Fish and Wildlife put out a FAQ sheet late last year that says there is a team in place working on the issue. But an earlier version of the document indicated the issue was not a priority. A later version, dated in December, removed that language.
Cormorants have been killed to protect fish in a number of places in the upper Great Lakes including the Les Cheneaux Islands, Ludington and Saginaw Bay.
People in the Les Cheneaux Islands say the water birds devastated the tourism economy there by eating all of the perch.
But James Ludwig says those claims are exaggerated. He’s an ornithologist and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that stopped the use of lethal control.
Ludwig says the number of cormorants in the Great Lakes is down sharply, and that's partly because there are fewer fish for the birds to eat.
“It may be a situation where you could relax all pressure on cormorants and they won’t respond very much because they don’t have very much to eat,” he says.
For now there will not be any human pressure on the cormorant population in the Great Lakes. Spring is when most of the lethal control happens here and no permits will be issued this year.