Cormorants to be hunted on lakes again despite protests

A depredation-removal hunt for cormorants will take place again this year on lakes Marion and Moultrie, despite concerns and a federal lawsuit to stop it.

A more restricted cormorant-removal hunt will open on lakes Moultrie and Marion on Feb. 14, as a federal lawsuit proceeds to stop the practice and state biologists try to get a read on whether it’s any help to the fishery.

The depredation removal program was launched last year. It killed more than 11,000 of the birds, and spurred opposition from environmental groups. Removal permits for 2015 will be offered only to the 520 hunters who returned a required report on their take, said Derrell Shipes, Department of Natural Resources’ Wildlife Statewide Projects, Research and Survey chief.

More than 1,100 hunters did at least some shooting during the monthlong program in 2014, according to a DNR report. In at least one spot on Lake Moultrie, recreational paddlers said they came across dozens upon dozens of shells floating in the water.

Angling groups have sought a removal of some sort for years, arguing the large number of birds on the lakes are eating too many game fish and destroying the cypress trees where they roost. The lakes are a popular fishing destination.

DNR launched the 2014 removal under pressure from legislators, who tacked on a budget proviso directing the agency “through the use of existing funds” to manage public participation in “cormorant control activities.”

But Audubon South Carolina among other groups mounted stiff opposition, saying the hunt is unjustified because no science has been produced to show it makes a difference, and that the bird is otherwise protected as a migrating species.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in charge of managing the birds as protected migratory species, but gives states depredation permits “to protect public resources.” The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility sued the service in October 2014, saying that was against the migratory species law.

The service authorized the state to hold the restricted removal for this year, Shipes said.

The suit notes that the South Carolina hunt increased by 25 percent for 2014 the number of birds taken nationwide. Cormorants are long-lived waterbirds that nest in colonies as large as a few thousand. An estimated 2 million of the birds are in North America. They are not considered game birds and are not eaten.

As herring move into the Marion-Moultrie lakes to spawn in the spring, huge numbers of migrating cormorants arrive to feed. The birds’ impact on the lakes’ game fish isn’t clear. Marion and Moultrie are relatively shallow, stagnant and heavily fished. They have long been a problematic fishery to manage. Studies have shown that cormorants eat a tremendous amount of fish, but so do other birds and fish.

DNR said after last year’s removal that any future program would likely be more restricted. Department staff were surprised when more than 800 people qualified for what was essentially an open hunt — far more than expected, so many that the agency didn’t have the staff to enforce bag limits. Hunters were required to attend a training session.

How many cormorants remain around the lakes also is unclear, although observers generally agree there are a lot, and they are increasing. People who frequent the lake said they haven’t seen fewer birds after the hunt.

Editor’s note: This story has been clarified since earlier versions.

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