Across the Great Lakes region, the recovery of the cormorant
is booming. But some anglers and resort owners think the cormorants are eating too many of the fish that people like to eat. In some areas, wildlife managers have resorted to killing cormorants on popular fishing lakes. In one case, critics say there’s not enough evidence to justify the killing. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Across the Great Lakes region the recovery of the cormorant is booming. But some anglers and resort owners think the cormorants are eating too many of the fish that people like to eat. In some areas, wildlife managers have resorted to killing cormorants on popular fishing lakes. In one case, critics say there’s not enough evidence to justify the killing. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Larry Jacobson is the third generation in his family to run the Hiawatha Beach Resort on Leech Lake, about two hundred miles north of Minneapolis. Three years ago, on fishing opener weekend, all of his twenty-one cabins were full. This year, he had no guests. Jacobson says the word has spread that fishing is down on Leech Lake. He blames the cormorants. The birds nest on a small island in the south end of the lake. Eight years ago, there were fifty nests; last year, there were two thousand five hundred.
“The cormorants eat about a pound fish a day. The way the population was just exploding out there, you could see writing was on the wall, that this was really going to make dramatic impact.”
Jacobson says his guests are still catching big walleye, but the smaller, pan-sized walleye are getting hard to find.
There are several reasons why the walleye population might be down, but Jacobson and other business owners blame it on the cormorants, and they’ve asked the Department of Natural Resources to do something about the birds.
“Leech needs to be maintained as high quality fishery. There’s such an economic impact to the area from walleyes, that if you don’t maintain it that way, everyone’s going to be suffering.”
(Sound of boat motor)
Resource officials are responding to the resort owners’ concerns. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe owns the island. John Ringle is wildlife manager for the tribe.
“Okay we’re headed right at Little Pelican Island right now.”
Little Pelican Island is about three acres of sand and scruffy shrubs. Hundreds of cormorants cover the shore. Ringle says they fish out here in the open waters of Leech Lake.
“They’re omnivorous so they’re eating all sorts of different varieties of fish. Right now they’re probably eating large numbers of perch.”
Ringle is working with state and federal agencies to reduce the number of cormorants nesting here, eating fish, and crowding out other birds, such as the endangered common tern.
Normally, cormorants are a federally protected bird, just like eagles. That’s because they were almost wiped out by the insecticide DDT before it was banned in 1973. But a new rule allows resource officials to harass and even kill cormorants where they’re damaging other wildlife.
This summer, workers are sitting in hunting blinds on Little Pelican Island, shooting cormorants. They use air rifles to make as little noise as possible, so the other cormorants aren’t spooked away.
So far, they’ve killed more than two thousand birds. They plan to leave about five hundred nesting pairs alive. Ringle says nobody’s happy about shooting cormorants, but he says he thinks it’s necessary.
RINGLE: “My philosophy is that as mankind utilizes the resource, we have to manage them, we’re not in finite supply.”
HEMPHILL: “Do you think we know enough to manage them?”
RINGLE: “Not really. I think the public is demanding action prior to any conclusive study being conducted.”
And that’s a big problem for Francie Cuthbert. She’s a professor and cormorant researcher at the University of Minnesota. Cuthbert says the agencies that want to cut down the cormorant population skipped an important part of the management process: finding out what’s actually happening on Leech Lake.
“They’re really being driven by complaints from citizens and resort owners who are concerned about local economics, and who just don’t like the birds; they’re afraid of the numbers. If we responded to all natural resources conflicts this way, we’d be in a state of chaos.”
Cuthbert says even with the cormorants’ dramatic comeback since the days of DDT, there still aren’t as many as there were a hundred years ago. She says rather than kill cormorants, wildlife officials should try to boost the number of fish.
The state of Minnesota is working on that. It’s stocking Leech Lake with walleye for the first time this year. Conservation officials are studying some of the birds they killed to find out what they’re eating. And the state is also limiting what size of walleye anglers can catch so the fish can recover.
That makes resort owners like Larry Jacobson nervous, because he says a lot of anglers don’t like the limits. But at least he’s glad someone’s doing something.
“The fishery is a business, there’s no question about that. If you want to sustain our economy in this area, you’ve got to manage the lake.”
Workers will continue shooting cormorants occasionally through the summer. And the control effort could continue. Experts say it’ll take several years for the fish to recover enough to draw anglers back to the lake.
For the GLRC, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.