Lawsuit challenges special-permit cormorant hunt on Moultrie, Marion lakes

Cormorants are being culled again from Moultrie and Marion lakes despite a lack of research to determine if the removal is helping preserve fish stocks.

A year ago, more than 11,000 cormorants were shot out of the sky above Moultrie and Marion lakes. Within a few weeks, people who frequent the lakes said they were seeing flocks of the waterbirds flying.

That’s just one of the dilemmas faced by lawmakers looking to appease angler groups. The state recently announced that the month-long special permit hunt to protect game fish cormorants feed on, will be held for the second year starting Feb. 14.

But nobody can say for sure if killing the birds makes much difference when colonies quickly re-establish, or if the fish-eating birds really do much to hurt fish stocks.

Meanwhile, no one knows what damage the hunts — being held in a number of states — could do to a just-restored population of birds that used to fly over the same fisheries by the hundreds of thousands. Other than the depredation hunts, cormorants are protected under federal law as a migrating species.

That’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is getting sued for allowing the hunts, plaintiffs say.

“It’s all conjecture at this point, and that’s the point of the lawsuit,” said James Ludwig, a population ecologist who documented the return of the cormorants to the Great Lakes, partly working with the National Audubon Society in Michigan, and who is one of the plaintiffs. “The fish biologists can’t figure out how to manage these populations. They need a scapegoat and the scapegoat is this big black bird.”

The suits puts Fish and Wildlife and the S.C. Department of Natural Resources in a tenuous position. The service authorized the 2015 hunt, but permits have been scaled back. Nearly 1,100 hunters fired away in 2014; this year permits are being offered only to the 520 hunters who returned the required reports.

Partly, the removal is again to appease angler interests that sought a state budget proviso mandating the hunt. Derrell Shipes, DNR wildlife statewide projects, research and survey chief acknowledged there were requests to continue.

But it’s also to continue trying to get some baseline data on cormorant numbers and their impact.

“We’re very comfortable with setting season bag limits for ducks and geese,” Shipes said, because of years of hunting and population data. That data isn’t available yet for cormorants, and might not be as workable because of the here-and-there movements of the birds, he said.

The removal, though, will take place this year with no decision about what to do in the future. The lawsuit filed by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in October 2014 noted the first South Carolina hunt increased by 25 percent for 2014 the number of birds taken nationwide.

“We are a substantial provocation in this lawsuit,” Shipes said.

No extensive field work study has been done since the fish and wildlife service launched the depredation removal program in 1998, Ludwig said. The best information available came from a study of cormorants in the Great Lakes. The study found a total mortality of 45 percent of the yellow perch studied, but only 1 percent from cormorants and 2 percent from sports anglers.

The take of commercial anglers, predominantly native tribal fishermen who are not required to report their catch, were not included in the study, which also didn’t take into account prevalent predator fish such as pike and muskellunge, Ludwig said. The birds’ impact, in other words, was negligible.

The Great Lakes are a far different ecosystem than the shallow Marion-Moultrie, which have long been a problem fishery to manage, and Ludwig readily conceded there might well be fisheries where controls are needed. The troubling part is, the “control” removals have been authorized before any of that has been determined, he said.

“This is a native bird that was probably the most abundant waterbird in Colonial times,” Ludwig said, but the fisheries were rich then too, despite the birds. Cormorants were all but lost to DDT in the 20th century. The numbers fell to only about 125 pairs in the Great Lakes area when he began to study them in 1970s.

“They’re just now rebounding to where they once were,” Ludwig said.

In Shipes’ opinion, monitoring and management of the birds needs to be done regionally to be effective, he said. But, “what we have here is this population (cormorants) that has grown significantly, as has its impact on the resource,” he said. “Given what we know about the cormorant, I’m not concerned about the future of the migrating population.”

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