Cormorant ‘removal’ returns on Marion-Moultrie lakes

File/William Bartlett Cormorants, a protected species, will be depredation hunted on the Marion-Moultrie lakes to limit their impact eating game fish.

The cormorant is a protected species. The cormorant is a fish-eating pest. So specially licensed shooters will be culling the birds on the Marion-Moultrie lakes again starting Saturday.

The third depredation shoot in three years will be underway for four weeks on the large man-made lakes north of Charleston. Some 317 veterans of previous “removal” hunts have been approved by the state this year. Last year, 381 shooters brought down about 15,000 of the birds.

No one has determined yet whether the kills make much difference in protecting game fish because cormorant colonies quickly re-establish, or if the fish-eating birds really do much to hurt stocks. No one knows what damage the shoots — being held in a number of states — could do to a just-restored population of birds almost wiped out by human use of the insecticide DDT that used to fly over the same fisheries by the hundreds of thousands.

One thing’s for sure, after two years and about 26,000 birds shot dead on the lakes, few if any observers can tell.

“There’s still a bunch of them in the lake, and they’re still eating fish, let me put it that way,” said Chad Odenwelder, Angel’s Landing Campground manager on the northwest bank of Lake Moultrie.

“It’s had zero impact,” said Nathan Dias of the Cape Romain Bird Sanctuary.

Cormorants are the snake-necked seabird often seen diving in open water. Any number of them migrate, so the species is protected under federal migratory bird laws.

But they are ravenous fish eaters that can kill a tree with their acidic feces if they roost there thickly enough. The birds descend by the thousands on the popular fishing lakes in winter months, although hard counts are hard to come by with the continually moving population.

Angling groups had sought a removal for years, arguing the large flocks on the lakes eat too many game fish and destroy the cypress trees where they roost. They lobbied legislators to pass a state budget proviso authorizing it.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the birds under federal law, gives states depredation permits “to protect public resources.” But the shoots are opposed by avian environmental advocates, and the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility is suing the service to stop it.

Meanwhile, the S.C. Department of Natural Resources is among a group of wildlife agencies that have asked the federal service to coordinate state efforts to control the birds, to get better counts and focus removal efforts where they are needed most. With a lawsuit underway, Fish and Wildlife spokesmen had no comment.

“The vast majority of these birds will be gone by April, only to return next winter. There’s very little if any monitoring of the Eastern Flyway as a whole,” said Derrell Shipes, DNR chief of wildlife projects, research and survey. “But we know the flyway population is doing quite well.”

On top of all that, cormorants are just one more predator in the notoriously fickle ecosystem of the shallow lakes, where species appear to populate or die off en masse at each other’s expense. Keeping it all in balance while responding to its users’ wants bedevils the state and Santee Cooper, the utility that manages the lakes.

“The lakes are very, very complex,” Shipes said.

Bird conservationists don’t like to see mass removals of a species when avian populations in general are in decline across the country and world.

“The concern for a lot of birders and conservationists is for the ahinga,” Dias said. Ahingas are Southern waterbirds with long thin necks that strongly resemble cormorants and also dive to hunt fish. “We’re worried ahingas will get caught in the crossfire, and that a mentality will get established that you can shoot birds that eat fish,” he said.

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