MNRF announces cormorant hunt

Sports, commercial fishermen pleased with news while animal rights activists, bird enthusiasts think bag limit of 15 per day is too high

QUEEN’S PARK – The provincial government has announced that as of September 15 and until December 31, an open season will exist for the hunting of double-crested cormorants. Perhaps the most reviled of local native avian species, the cormorant has been the scourge of Manitoulin Island anglers and cottage owners for decades since population numbers rebounded for the second time in two centuries.

“It’s about 25 years too late,” observed Little Current Fish and Game Club president Bill Strain, a long-time advocate of population control measures. “It’s been a long time coming. I think it is a good move—better than nothing.”

The government rationale for introducing the new cormorant hunting regulations are allegations that the birds deplete commercial fish stocks and that their droppings destroy vegetation—allegations disputed by animal rights organizations but wholeheartedly endorsed by the sports fishing industry. Mr. Strain points to his observations of the cormorant population while engaged in the annual Little Current Fish and Game Club walleye stocking program centred on Sheguiandah Bay and the Bass Creek spawning area.

“Every spring, when the walleye and other fish are coming in, it’s disgusting what you see,” he said. “There are 25 to 30 cormorants at any given time. They come up with 15- to 20-inch walleye and gulp them down.” So greedily do the avian fishers harvest their meals that they are “too loaded down to be able to lift off.”

While Mr. Strain applauds the government decision to introduce control measures through hunting, he said the effort is ill-timed. “They should be putting in some measures for the spring,” he said. “That is when the fish are trying to reproduce for future generations.”

Once the feeding frenzy of the spring spawn is over, Mr. Strain said the cormorants move on to inland lakes, dispersing across the region to continue their voracious habits in smaller waters and reproducing rapidly. “They stay around until the fish go out of the river,” he said. “Then they spread out over all of Manitoulin.”

Fuel the Fire TV host and owner of Island Sunrise Fishing Charters and Cottages Neil Debassige said that he feels some type of control of the cormorant population is needed. “They are a species that needs to be controlled,” he said, “if we are going to find a balance. Although we are not seeing the hundreds of cormorants filling the sky as much, they really do a number on the baitfish.”

Moe Gauthier, owner of Screamin’ Reels Sportfishing Charters out of South Baymouth was enthusiastic when asked about his take on the plan. “I think it’s fantastic,” he said. Mr. Gauthier said that he sees first-hand the depredations on the baitfish population by the voracious birds. “I see them every day,” he said, “you don’t have to go out of the harbour.”

The baitfish (like alewives) are the primary food source for game fish like salmon. 

A quarter century ago, cormorant numbers began to rise in the North Channel and inland lakes, including Lake Manitou, and the popular sports salmon fishery on Lake Huron coincidentally went into decline and the competition for food with the growing cormorant population was blamed by Island tourist operators and fish and game clubs.

The salmon fishery has rebounded, coincidentally, as the number of cormorants has declined over the past seven to 10 years, as evidenced by the annually increasing weights entered into The Manitoulin Expositor Salmon Classic organized and sponsored by this paper over the past four years. (This would have been the fifth year except for the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The Ministry of Natural Resources, as it was known 25 years ago, disagreed with the call for a cull, arguing that the cormorants would eventually outgrow the local food source and move on. The ministry did, however, support two years of egg oiling (a process that preventing the eggs from hatching) at North Channel island nesting sites and there was also a sanctioned campaign to frighten nesting birds away from their eggs by setting off noise-making devices nearby on a regular basis to dislodge them from this region. 

The Ministry of Natural Resources, until now, has resisted continued calls for culls on the birds.

Like Mr. Strain, Mr. Gauthier said he was “a little disappointed” in the timing. “I think it’s a little late,” he said. “Most of the birds will be gone by then (when the hunt will take place).”

Cormorants tend to migrate south, wintering primarily in US east coast states such as the Carolinas come fall—where fish farm operators have an ongoing battle with the birds.

Local avian enthusiast and the driving force behind the annual Manitoulin Christmas bird counts, Chris Bell, said he was “not in favour” of the cormorant hunting season, but that it was not as objectionable as the original government proposal to allow hunters a 40 bird bag limit. “But 15 a day is still very high, too high. We don’t have the numbers of cormorants we had a few years ago. I think it’s a shame.”

Fish and game clubs across the province have been advocating for control measures for more than two and a half decades and in 2018, measures were proposed for public comment. Although the initial measures proposed were more severe, the open hunting season announced by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) last Friday reflect the concerns of the sports fishing and commercial fishing industry. According to an August 1 release from the ministry, the rationale for the killing of the birds is that they reduce fish stocks and their droppings damage natural habitat. The ministry goes on to assert the burgeoning cormorant population hurts “the livelihoods of commercial fishermen” adding that “property owners, hunters and anglers have all complained.”

 “The harvest will help address concerns about impacts to local ecosystems by cormorants, a bird that preys on fish, eating a pound a day and that can damage trees in which they nest and roost,” the MNRF release states.

Mr. Bell noted that hunters will be firing into cormorant nesting sites and that will inevitably lead to collateral damage amongst other, perhaps endangered, species. “There are other birds mingled with the cormorants on those islands,” he said.

Liz White, a director of the non-profit Animal Alliance of Canada and leader of the federally registered Animal Protection Party of Canada, said the alliance and party are opposed to the hunt.

Ms. White is quoted in the national media as asserting the hunt is unethical because the birds are not eaten, cruel because many birds will be wounded and  suffering  and is unsound in science because the birds do not deplete commercial fish stocks.

“The problem is that the issues that they talk about as justification for the hunt are simply not held up in science,” Ms. White said, noting that cormorants are found where fish are plentiful. “What we find out is that where there are a lot of birds, like a lot of cormorants and other colonial nesting birds, the reason that they are there in great quantities is there is also a very healthy fish population.”

Ms. White said the hunt, despite being pared down from the 2018 proposals, could still devastate a recovered native wildlife species that has been driven to near extinction twice in the past 200 years.

In addition to the unrestricted hunting that was common in the early 19th and 20th centuries, the proliferation of the chemical DDT decimated populations of egg laying upper tier avian predators. The return to a hunt of any kind, especially one they believe is politically motivated rather than being based on science, alarms animal rights activists.

“We know that is a perilous activity and we believe it is put forward because people don’t like the birds,” Ms. White said.

She points out that if only 20,000 of the 197,000 small game licence holders take the 15 birds allowed per day, the cormorant population could be wiped out.

Mr. Bell said he believes the numbers should be studied. “Papers should be written and government scientists should be making decisions on it,” he said. “We certainly don’t need a season that goes into November and December.”

The MNRF release notes that together with its partner agencies, it has surveyed cormorant colonies across the Great Lakes and some of the inland lakes in Ontario in 2019 and, based on nest counts, it is estimated there are a minimum of 143,000 breeding cormorants located in 344 colonies.

MNRF Minister John Yakabuski said in the release, “We’ve heard concerns from property owners, hunters and anglers, and commercial fishers about the kind of damage cormorants have caused in their communities, so we’re taking steps to help them deal with any local issues.”

But bird advocates such as Steven Price, president of Birds Canada, a non-profit charitable organization that touts itself as Canada’s “voice for birds” raises alarms over the difficulty of enforcing the bag limits on cormorants, particularly given how unpopular the cormorant is in some circles. Mr. Price does admit that he, unlike Mr. Strain, is pleased the hunt will take place outside of the cormorant breeding season.

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), which has long advocated for control measures said on Sunday that the hunt lines up with other waterfowl hunting seasons and suggests that concerns of imminent extinction of the species are overblown. “It’s a pretty minor hunt, to be honest,” said Lauren Tonelli, resource management specialist with the OFAH. “The season lines up with pretty much every other waterfowl species in Ontario. We really don’t think that this hunt will have a huge impact on the population. We really see this as a starting point and a way to recognize that something needs to be done and it gives individuals a means to begin to reduce their own local concerns.”

The new regulations stipulate that hunters can use shotguns, including muzzle-loading shotguns, not larger than 10 gauge with non-toxic ammunition, but cannot use a shotgun loaded with a shell containing a single projectile.

Hunters can shoot double-crested cormorants from a stationary motorboat, meaning the motorboat is not in motion and the power to the motor has been turned off.

The release notes that all other relevant federal, provincial and municipal laws/rules related to hunting apply (for example trespassing, municipal discharge of firearms bylaws, federal firearm licencing requirements).

When it comes to retrieval or disposal of the dead cormorants, hunters must follow additional rules, including having the adequate means of retrieving any bird that is shot; immediately retrieving the bird; dispatching the bird if it is alive when retrieved; and including that cormorant in their bag limit.

If a hunter chooses to not use the birds they harvest, they must dispose of the carcass either by delivering the bird to an approved waste disposal site that permits the disposal of dead animals; delivering the bird to a disposal facility, or using the services of a licenced collector, under the Disposal of Deadstock Regulation (Ontario Regulation 105/09) made under the Food Safety and Quality Act, 2001; or burying it on private land owned by the hunter, or on private land occupied by the hunter with consent of the land owner.