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Ontario's cormorant hunt evokes praise, concern locally

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Ontario’s controversial new fall hunt for the double-crested cormorant has pitted outdoors’ and sportsmen’s groups against naturalist and birding organizations.

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Those who support it are applauding the province for finally recognizing and addressing the problems caused by overabundant cormorant populations, noting the fish-gobbling aquatic birds are significantly impacting terrestrial habitats, fish populations and angling opportunities.

Those opposed say the government’s approach is not science-based, lacks targets and presents a risk to similar-looking birds. They say the province is targetting a native bird that is largely misunderstood and is a species recovery success story in Ontario.

Wayne Forgrave, chair of the Ontario Federation of Anglers & Hunters Zone H, which includes Grey-Bruce, said the hunt – which began last week – is long overdue.

“The cormorants are in ludicrous numbers and they are actually destroying properties, trees and they are also devastating the sportfishing stocks,” he said.

John Ford, a Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association director, agreed, saying the hunt is a good control measure for the prehistoric-looking birds, which he has no doubt have impacted the local sports fishery.

“How successful it will be, I don’t know. I guess no one really knows. How many people will get involved in this? I’m not sure. Cormorants are not dumb birds. If they start being targeted someplace, they’re probably going to go somewhere else,” he said.

Opposition to the hunt has resulted in a change.org petition calling on the province to stop it. It’s been signed by more than 7,500 people.

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Fifty-one experts, including ecologists and fisheries scientists, have also signed a letter urging the province to provide a scientific explanation for the hunt and instead adopt targeted, localized management approaches to dealing with the birds.

Bruce Cox, a birder, angler and former Greenpeace Canada executive director who lives near Port Elgin, said the hunt does not have a  scientific basis.

“It has more to do, I would expect, with Tory fundraising than it does trying to manage the double-crested cormorant,” he said.

“I think it sets a bad precedent for all kinds of things when politicians step in and override basic scientific principles for political reasons.”

Cox, who has worked as a commercial fisherman on the west coast and special assistant to Ontario’s environment minister in the 1990s, said he would have liked to have seen the province develop a science-based, comprehensive wildlife management plan to address concerns with the cormorant.

The province proposed in late 2018 introducing an open hunting season for the cormorant to run annually from March 15 to Dec. 31 and establish a bag limit of 50 cormorants per day.

Following public consultation, the province approved a shorter cormorant hunting season – to run annually from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31 – and reduced the limit on cormorants that can be killed by a hunter to 15 per day.

Cormorants have been listed as a game bird, allowing people with a Small Game Licence to hunt them during the season, including from stationary motorboats. All killed birds must be immediately retrieved and if the hunter chooses not to eat the birds they harvest, they must be disposed of properly.

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The province said the “fall harvest” is a way to protect fish stocks and natural habitat “from the harmful impacts” of the diving birds, which can eat a pound of fish a day and whose droppings, in large amounts, can kill trees and other vegetation and destroy traditional nesting habitats for other colonial waterbirds.

A 2019 survey of cormorant nests on the Great Lakes indicated there are at least 143,000 breeding pairs of the birds in 344 colonies across the province.

Trends suggest those populations are rising on lakes Ontario, Erie and Superior and are stable on Lake Huron and the St. Lawrence River, the province says, noting it will continue to monitor the birds’ population and trends “to support the sustainability of cormorants in the province.”

Jack Osadzuk of Owen Sound, who recently stepped down after an almost 20-year tenure on the OFAH board, said some shorelines and highlands in Ontario, including in parts of Grey-Bruce, have been denuded by cormorant colonies.

“Cormorants are widespread now. At one time, eastern Ontario was about the only place you would see them and now you see them by the thousands migrating through places like Pelee. If you get a flock of 500 or 600 cormorants landing in a little bay, they can pretty much wipe out any fish stocks that there is in that bay,” he said.

Cormorants have destroyed some trees at Harrison Park, he said, and gobble up young fish released by the Sydenham Sportsmen’s Association to stock the sports fishery.

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Ford said cormorants have also ruined vegetation on Chantry Island.

But Cox said there’s no scientific evidence that cormorants have a significant impact on the fishery, noting little of the birds’ diet consists of sports fish. Eighty per cent of their diet is invasive species like alewives and round gobies, he said.

“They’re doing us a huge favour.”

Overfishing and water quality issues, like algae, are more serious threats to the fishery, he added.

Cox noted that the province’s news release on the cormorant hunt says it heard concerns from property owners, hunters and anglers and commercial fishers about the kind of damage cormorants have caused. But he said there was no mention of scientists, naturalists or bird watchers.

He said the largest cormorant populations on the Great Lakes, including the Leslie Street spit in Toronto, are outside of the hunt boundaries.

Not dealing with those “mega colonies,” he said, means there will be a “never-ending supply of the birds” that will simply take over areas where other birds have been hunted.

Cox said the story of cormorants in Ontario should be lauded as an environmental victory in citizens’ advocacy, noting they rebounded from near-extinction following a DDT ban in the 1970s.

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