Cormorants aren't a favorite bird for very many people. They are snaky necked, ravenous fish eaters that can kill a tree with their acidic feces if they roost there thickly enough.

Cormorant facts

The double-crested cormorant

One of 38 species worldwide, one of 6 in the U.S.

Found in waterways from Alaska to Florida.

Long-lived waterbird, nests in colonies that can be as large as a few thousand.

An estimated 2 million in North America. Population increased rapidly 1970s-1990, slowed in the 1990s.

States permitted to conduct cormorant depredation removals include Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

Sources: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And this time of year they descend on the Marion-Moultrie lakes by the "thousands and thousands and thousands," according to one fishing guide, ready to feast on the shad and herring runs that provide food for the lakes' trophy game fish.

That's why anglers and state legislators have been pushing for a cormorant removal hunt scheduled to start Feb. 2 on the lakes. Avian conservationists oppose it. As a migratory bird, the cormorant, craw and all, is a protected species, meaning federal regulations restrict harassment or taking of the birds.

"These are native birds. They have always been here. Someone now perceives that to be a problem," said Norman Brunswig, Audubon South Carolina state director. The S.C. Department of Natural Resources has no credible scientific evidence that the onslaught of winter migrating birds does any substantive damage to the fishery, he said. "To kill a bird without a really, really good reason to do it is kind of barbaric."

'Look at the flocks'

DNR is holding the removal "event" after years of angling groups seeking it, and after a proviso was tacked onto the 2013-2014 budget directing the agency "through the use of existing funds" to manage public participation in "cormorant control activities."

Truman Lyon, the South Carolina Guides Association representative for Berkeley County, makes no bones about it.

"We definitely need to have this hunt," he said. "Look at the roosts. Look at the banks. Look at the flocks and flocks of (cormorants) on the lakes. There are many, many more than there ever were. There's nothing to kill them," he said.

Studies have shown that the birds eat a tremendous amount of fish. But that's alongside other birds and, of course, the fish themselves.

How much the feasting might be depleting the game fish isn't clear. The lakes - relatively shallow, stagnant and heavily fished - have long been a problematic fishery to manage. Previous declines in game fish species have been blamed on factors such as overfishing, aquatic cover removal and drought, as well as competition for food. The recent cold snap killed bait fish.

Striped bass, or stripers, were the trophy fish that turned the lakes into what has been touted as a $300 million-per-year tourism destination. In the early 2000s the striper numbers went into a precipitous decline, but aggressive stocking and tighter catch restrictions, among other measures, brought them back.

"There's loads of stripers," Lyon said, but crappie and bream numbers are not where they should be, he said, and catfish have depleted to the point where DNR is now imposing a limit of 20 fish per day per person in the boat.

Cormorants increasing

How many cormorants there actually are around the lakes isn't clear, although observers generally agree there are a lot, and they are increasing.

The removal hunt was given a depredation permit "to protect public resources" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency in charge of managing protected species. The permit doesn't require population numbers to be reported, just the harvest, said Tom McKenzie, Southeast region media relations chief.

Santee Cooper, the quasi-state utility that manages the lakes, officially is staying hands-off.

DNR manages the fish and game for Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie, said Santee Cooper spokeswoman Nicole Aiello; it is the agency's role to make decisions such as this one.

DNR staff have concerns about the "event." Staff will fly over the lakes before and afterward to do counts of cormorants, along with other protected bird species such as bald eagles, anhingas and wood storks. That data will be reviewed to decide - among other things - whether to hold the hunt again.

800 hunters qualified

"We're not concerned about the future of the migrating cormorant population, because it has grown so much," said Derrell Shipes, DNR Wildlife Statewide Projects, Research and Survey chief. The birds are now so numerous they routinely are caught in the lakes' fish passage, he said.

More than 800 people have qualified to hunt the birds, making the "public removal" so labor-intensive that the agency doesn't have the staff to enforce bag limits. The hunters each have taken part in a training session that includes warnings not to mistakenly shoot other similar-looking, protected species such as anhingas and wood ducks or face arrest.

The scheduled two-month "event" can be stopped at any time by DNR, Shipes said.

"All of us should pay attention to what we're doing," he said. "When we have the harvest information, we'll step back, look at the problems and issues and go from there."

Brunswig isn't buying it. DNR wouldn't hold this hunt if it wasn't being pressured to, he said. The cormorant population went into serious decline with the use of the now-banned DDT. The increase of birds on the lakes means the population is re-establishing itself.

"We should be celebrating that, it seems to me," he said. The removal "is a sad thing."

Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.