The 800 hunters who shot cormorants on the Marion-Moultrie lakes in February took more than 10 each on average.

But it barely made a dent, people who frequent the lake say.

More than 11,000 were taken in the monthlong depredation hunt that S.C. Department of Natural Resources licensed as a removal "event" under pressure from legislators. Angler groups have argued the large number of birds on the lakes were killing too many game fish and destroying cypress trees where they roost.

"Hunt or no hunt, it really hasn't affected the cormorants who come in the cove at Blacks Fish Camp. Right here in the cove we (still) see three or four or five per day," said owner Allan Weiss.

"I haven't seen much of a decrease, to tell you the truth. I still see flocks fly," said paddler and recreational angler Wayne White. "Eleven thousand, that's a drop in the bucket."

Norman Brunswig, Audubon South Carolina director, opposed the removal from the beginning and said his concerns weren't eased to know the population is still strong. No one has shown any scientific evidence that the birds are causing the sort of damage that justifies the hunt, he said. He plans to pursue that issue with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the federal agency in charge of managing the birds as protected migratory species. The agency gave the state a depredation permit for the hunt "to protect public resources."

"Why allow a protected migratory bird to be killed without justification?" Brunswig asked.

The hunt was held 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."

A similar proviso has been added to the 2014-2015 budget still in the legislature.

DNR staff had concerns about the "event." Staff flew over the lakes before to do counts of cormorants, along with other protected bird species such as bald eagles, anhingas and wood storks. A post-event flight was planned. But calls and emails to DNR on Tuesday asking for comment were not returned.

Data from the flights was to be reviewed to decide whether to hold the hunt again or find another management tool.

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

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

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 and water temperature drops.

The biggest complaints that came from the hunt were from recreational lake users who found large floating patches of spent shotgun shells and occasional unretrieved dead cormorants.

The hunt should be a positive for the fishing, Weiss said. The people who opposed it, "they need to come to the lake and look at what these birds have done to the cypress trees."

When the herring move into the lakes to spawn in the spring, huge numbers of migrating cormorants are still expected.

"In the spring, several hundred will come in (to the cove) after herring. They'll float in to run the fish up right to the hill at the top of the cove, where's there no escape," Weiss said.

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