‘A bird that can’t speak back’: The Ford government’s mass killing of the double-crested cormorant reveals its true stripes
Intervening in the ecosystems that establish our natural world is always tricky business.
Inserting human will on a network of intricate relationships between countless species, just like the PC government’s current assault on the recently endangered double-crested cormorant, is often like a game of Jenga — if the wrong piece is pulled out, the entire structure can come crashing down.
As the human population has skyrocketed over the last 50 years and our built urban environment takes over more and more green space, conflicts between humans and Mother Nature have escalated, creating a growing need for scientists to limit the damage wrought on both the human and natural world.
Finding methods to quell the rise of invasive species, or management tactics for slowing down the sudden rise in numbers of an apex predator, expert biologists inform governments on solutions to these growing problems.
When shoddy science is used instead, as appears to be the case in the justification of the alarming cormorant cull now taking place, local ecosystems can be placed in grave danger.
Typically, a myriad of different species management options are explored and analyzed by experts for their potential outcomes. When these decisions are made with little scientific backing, the consequences of politically motivated actions can be disastrous for ecosystems and food chains across the province.
“When you start messing with the top or the bottom (of a food chain), you can have cascading effects in either direction,” explains Steven J. Cooke, director of the Institute of Environmental and Interdisciplinary Science at Carleton University. “When we start removing, or adding, major features of food webs, we never know what to expect.”
Even with reams of scientific data, these conservation efforts require “a constant shell game” to find the best solution, Cooke says.
In Ontario, the double-crested cormorant, perhaps more than any other animal species, is under siege due to the political whim of the current government, using shoddy science to justify the mass hunting of these birds.
A skilled fisherman, the cormorant is branded as a threat to commercial fish stocks. As a colonial waterbird — meaning they nest with thousands of others in the same space — cormorants draw ire for the way these nesting habits can destroy trees, while their acidic droppings (or guano) can also cause harm to the surrounding vegetation.
An aerial view of the cormorant colony at Toronto’s Tommy Thompson Park, the largest colony in North America.
(Photo from TRCA)
Supposedly for these reasons, Premier Doug Ford and his PC government approved the hunting of double-crested cormorants, with the first official season running from September to December 2020.
Hunters are currently in the second season of this widespread culling, as thousands of these birds are being destroyed at the hands of humans.
“The hunting season for double-crested cormorant was established in response to concerns raised by some hunters and stakeholders, including commercial fishers, about the potential harmful impacts of cormorants on fish populations and shoreline habitats,” states Morgan Kerekes, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry. “The hunting season is an additional tool to help address concerns about cormorant impacts to local ecosystems.”
Shockingly, these potentially harmful impacts are the only explanation the provincial government has provided for opening up the hunting of a native species, allowing recreational shooters to kill up to 15 of these birds every day throughout the 121-day fall and early winter season.
There is no management plan, no target cormorant population the government is trying to achieve, no requirement for hunters to report the number of birds they kill, no monitoring to see whether it is adults or juveniles being killed — all of which is typically involved in wildlife management policies. For species like moose, deer, elk, and wild turkeys, the Ontario government enforces these strict management practices, along with other measures, during hunting seasons to ensure the intended outcome.
No such approach is being used for the double-crested cormorant. And the science being claimed by the PCs to justify the hunt is suspicious, at best.
“It’s a bit of an embarrassment,” says Keith Hobson, a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Western Ontario. He says the cormorant hunt has no backing in sound science. “Here we’ve just taken a left-turn into what I can only think of as an eradication. It has nothing to do with wildlife management. I would challenge anyone to defend that point.”
The initial proposal in 2018 was met with strong backlash from numerous scientists and environmental groups who claimed the cormorant hunt was not backed in science.
But after Ford and his PCs rose to power the same year, with a powerful majority government that has used its muscle to get what it wants for supporters, hunters found the perfect ally in their push for a new species to target.
“Cormorants are a species native to Ontario. A significant amount of financial resources was invested in creating a healthier environment which allowed them to recover; their abundance is a conservation success story,” reads an open letter from 51 scientists sent to the Ford government in September 2020, the beginning of the first hunting season. “To avoid the species becoming endangered again, the population needs to be managed using the best practices in wildlife management and their populations carefully monitored.”
When asked by The Pointer for the scientific studies that were used to support the government position that cormorants were posing a threat to native fish stocks, the documents offered actually provided evidence to the contrary.
A 2006 assessment report completed by the Ministry of Natural Resources and shared with The Pointer states that, “direct impacts from cormorant predation on larger game fish may be almost non-existent, as cormorants generally consume fish that are up to approximately 15cm in length,” and “there has been no evidence to suggest that cormorants have been responsible for the demise of any species in the Great Lakes-wide fish community.”
The study reported that in particular local circumstances, such as a large colony of cormorants roosting near a small body of water, the impacts from cormorants are minimal.
“Recreational and commercial fish species are rarely found to be directly impacted by foraging cormorants, except in circumstances where the scale of assessment is small and/or the location is relatively unproductive for forage fish,” the study states. “In general, cormorant predation has not been found to have a significant impact on Great Lakes sport or forage fish populations on a lake-wide scale.”
It’s the same conclusion reached in numerous scientific studies. A 2003 analysis of the cormorant management plan in the United States found that “the majority of available studies fail to show that Double-crested Cormorants have significant impact by predation on desirable fish (i.e., species and size classes targeted by sport fishing)” and that those studies that found a depletion of desirable fish by cormorants “only quantify fish numbers at local spatial scales (i.e., only a subset of a biological population), or are based on small samples.”
The study notes that if governments were truly concerned about factors impacting fish populations, they should actually be looking at other significant, human-caused elements.
“Many factors contribute to variation in recreational and commercial catches and the systems where perceived problems are the greatest are those where over-fishing, exotic species invasions, stocking of apex predators and perhaps climatic variability are greatest. To single out cormorants as the cause of these perceived problems is not justified by the science.”
The PC government says because of the damaging nesting behaviours of cormorants, it justifies a province-wide cull. The impacts of nesting are typically contained to a particular space, and conservation efforts have shown this can be mitigated with non-lethal options.
(Photo by Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer)
The fact the Province would so brazenly use research that actually contradicts its position, suggests there is another reason for the current destruction of the cormorant across Ontario.
Experts also take issue with the Province’s argument that cormorant populations need to be controlled due to their impact on trees and destruction of vegetation. This is a hypocritical argument for the PC government to make as it prepares to encroach on the Ontario Greenbelt, the world’s largest protected area of forest and other green spaces.
The PC government is forging ahead with development policies that will admittedly destroy parts of the Greenbelt, while the construction of massive new highway corridors in the province will destroy hundreds of thousands of trees, thousands of hectares of green space and prime agricultural land with the GTA West Highway and Bradford Bypass (the GTA West will destroy 75 wetlands, 28 of which are designated as provincially significant, while the Bypass will pave over 800 football fields worth of environmentally sensitive lands, among other devastating impacts).
By comparison, the number of island habitats and trees impacted by double-crested cormorants is negligible.
Experts have told the Province, any damage to these spaces by cormorants is part of a natural process that adds nutrients back into the lake. The irony is that what the provincial government claims it is doing to protect ecosystems, could actually be having the opposite effect.
“Cormorants are an integral part of nitrogen and phosphorus nutrient flux in these freshwater aquatic systems. That is, cormorants, unlike humans, introduce only waste related to fish consumption from the very lakes in question, and the argument becomes laughable in comparison to the magnitude of human-related fouling of the Great Lakes,” Hobson writes in the journal of Avian Conservation and Ecology.
Cooke, who is also a professor of fish ecology and conservation, says the argument that cormorants need to be killed as a result of their impact on fish is simply false.
“There isn’t a fish issue. I can’t point to the fish issue that needs to be helped by our wildlife colleagues’ need to exterminate a bunch of birds,” he says. “Maybe we should look at ourselves, maybe we should look at the fact that anglers are using such crazy technology that there’s no place for fish to hide, or what we’re doing in terms of climate change, but it’s easier to point fingers at a bird that can’t speak back.”
The decision to open another hunting season on these birds with little supporting evidence follows a series of destructive decisions by the PC government which appears intent on gutting environmental legislation, silencing experts, and proceeding with its agenda to appease developers and special interest groups at any cost, even in the midst of a global biodiversity crisis.
“What I have an issue with is that we are making decisions about natural resources that have no basis in science, and so it’s just a matter of time before this same logic is applied to the next problem, the next issue and so on,” Cooke says.
Another deeply frustrating reality is that the double-crested cormorant has no personal value to hunters, beyond whatever joy they derive from killing these birds—their meat cannot be consumed, they can’t be eaten by humans.
In many ways, it’s hard not to be amazed by the stunning capabilities of our animal counterparts.
We marvel at the strength of a dog’s nose, between 10,000 and 100,000 more sensitive than ours; or at the speed of a cheetah, which at 130 km/h would keep pace with many of the fastest drivers on the 401, or would put Usain Bolt’s record breaking 9.58 second 100-metre dash to shame (in that sprint Bolt reached a top speed of 45 km/h).
Even the more obscure animals on our planet can dazzle with their amazing feats of strength or movement.
The dung beetle is known as the world’s strongest insect, capable of pulling 1,141 times its own body weight, or the equivalent of the average human lifting nearly 180,000 pounds.
Or take the Allen’s hummingbird. During its mating display, the male can dive from the sky at speeds of almost 100 km/h when trying to impress potential mates. When pulling out of this dramatic plunge, the tiny bird experiences more than 9 times the force of gravity.
“Diving at 385 body lengths per second, this hummer beats the peregrine falcon’s dives at 200 body lengths per second — and even beats the space shuttle as it screams down through the atmosphere at 207 body lengths per second,” writes Sy Montgomery in her book The Hummingbird’s Gift.
The natural world is filled with amazing accomplishments that place particular species in the mystical and awe-inspiring gaze of humans.
Unfortunately, not all animal species are celebrated the same way. Some, like the double-crested cormorant, are demonized for their instinctual, impressive abilities. Cormorants can consume between one and one-and-a-half pounds of fish each day, aided by a slender neck and beak designed for grabbing and hooking small fish.
Despite its abilities, and its stunning plumage, which is quite colourful when viewed close up, these birds have a tragic history of being targeted for extermination.
“Its unique appearance has inspired fear and disgust, and its fishing skill has inspired anger and hatred. Its transformative powers are judged destructive and its populations have been deemed far too large,” writes Linda Wires in her book The Double-crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah.
In 2015, Wires expanded on this sentiment in an article in the journal of Avian Conservation and Ecology.
“The persecution of this species has been ongoing for centuries, with origins dating back to the arrival of European settlers to North America. What is relatively new, however, is that in the U.S., the irrational attitudes that have driven this treatment have now found legitimacy in federal regulations established by the agency officially tasked with protecting migratory birds in America.”
Wires refers to policies that allow cormorants to be hunted, or Public Resource Depredation Orders (PRDO) in the United States, which began in 1998 and have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of cormorants.
“With the PRDO, we have a policy that does not promote knowledge-based solutions; instead, it provides a mechanism by which tens of thousands of birds can be killed for engaging in natural behaviours and fulfilling their role as piscivores (an animal that eats primarily fish) in natural environments,” Wires writes. “Cormorants are now safe nowhere.”
For decades, the double-crested cormorant has been used as a scapegoat for many problems befalling lake-ecosystems, although human activity is much more to blame.
(Photo from Becky Matsurbara/Wikimedia Commons)
Canada used to be different, but Hobson fears that has all changed, now.
“We’ve come a long way with wildlife management,” he says. “It relies on some very basic tenants of evidence and also monitoring, so that if you think there is a problem that you have good evidence for, you monitor things prior to your action, and then you monitor things after your action to see if you’ve had the effect that’s desired. That’s not what is happening here.
“We’re getting a black eye over this thing. We were able to distinguish ourselves from the United States vigilantes… we could hold our heads high.”
The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) was one of the groups requesting the provincial government create a management plan for cormorants.
“We did not request a hunt or a general cull,” says Lauren Tonelli, a resource management specialist with the OFAH, who says the organization simply requested the government move forward with some kind of provincial management plan, options which could have included non-lethal tactics. “We are not looking for the eradication of cormorants in Ontario, we are looking for management to a stable, sustainable population that is not expanding its range.”
Tonelli says the OFAH’s largest concern is the movement of cormorants inland to smaller lakes as their population numbers expand. Data from the Province shows that cormorant populations have been increasing in recent years, returning to normal levels after almost being eradicated by the chemical DDT several decades ago. However, it remains unknown whether the population numbers are truly increasing at a rate that should be concerning for scientists and conservationists. Much of the belief that cormorant populations are getting out of hand is simply anecdotal, based on people’s perceptions after having not seen these birds in large numbers for decades due to human activity that put them near the brink of extinction. Increased numbers of the birds are being seen because they are simply rebounding from destructive human behaviour.
“Those smaller lakes do not have the biomass or species diversity to rebound [from] cormorants feeding there,” Tonelli says, referring to studies that have shown cormorants have the tendency to target smaller fish, which in a smaller lake ecosystem, could result in a large number of juvenile fish being wiped out.
“NRF managers are not out monitoring the effects of cormorants on smaller lakes, so it is impossible to tell what the actual impacts are, but we know that cormorants have the potential to alter age structures in localized fish populations which could lead to loss of naturally producing Brook Trout lakes,” she says.
While studies have shown cormorants can have impacts on a small scale, experts say this is not a reason to enact a province-wide cull. In fact, localized management programs at Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto’s Leslie Spit (a manmade headland created, ironically, as part of a broad Lake Ontario waterfront conservation effort by previous provincial governments) — home to North America’s largest cormorant colony — and at Pelee Island, and Presqu’ile Provincial Park, have shown that cormorants can be managed effectively with localized, and non-lethal solutions.
“Since 2008 cormorants at Tommy Thompson Park have been managed spatially, to encourage ground nesting and prevent tree nesting within healthy trees in the park,” states the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority website. “This is primarily accomplished by implementing an escalating scale of deterrent activities in defined areas throughout the breeding season from April to early June. This technique has been highly successful, with 74 percent of the population nesting on the ground in 2018 compared to 15 percent in 2008.”
It’s unclear why the Province did not opt for more localized solutions to address the concerns of the unnamed groups and property owners who came forward.
It shows the Province is using the wrong tool for the job. If there are concerns about cormorants in particular areas, individual management plans would be better to solve these issues. Instead, the Province has opted to implement a province-wide, four-month long cull without any idea of the number of birds that could be killed and the impacts of that species loss.
It’s a sledgehammer approach to kill a mosquito. But in this case, the mosquito is doing little harm.
“If I have a racoon, or a skunk in my backyard that’s getting into the garbage, okay, we can do something about that, but I don’t ask the government for a complete province-wide kill of all skunks and all racoons,” Hobson says, pointing the finger at a small number of special interests groups that clearly have the ear of the PC government.
Similar to the point made by Wires, this approval from the government has many members of the hunting public viewing the killing of these birds as a public service.
Hobson says it could be very hard to go back.
“If you for once allow the public to do this, to take these actions, it becomes this tacit approval, this government approval, that what you’re doing is right,” he says. “They feel like they’re doing a service. They’ve been given government permission to do this, and they’re out and they’re just going for it, and I think it’s a really sad day for this country, not just Ontario.”
Facebook pages have been created to celebrate the work of those out hunting these birds. Pictures of wheelbarrows filled with rotting corpses of cormorants, and dead birds draped over the edge of boats or piled on shorelines dominate these triumphant social media pages. Many are complemented by comments celebrating the deaths of these birds.
CAPTION: An image taken from the Ontario Cormorant Hunters Facebook page.
(Image from Facebook)
Kerekes, the spokesperson with the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, says the Province will be actively monitoring the cormorant population to ensure there are no significant impacts.
“The ministry will also evaluate hunter harvest, interest and participation in double-crested cormorant hunting as part of its periodic Small Game Hunter Survey. The fall hunting season is not expected to impact sustainability of the cormorant population in Ontario,” Kerekes states.
Without any effective monitoring, her use of the word "expected" seems apropos. The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters says it has a membership of more than 100,000 and 725 affiliated clubs. If even 1,000 hunters, one percent, are active in the current cull, and only went out one out of every ten days in the season to shoot 15 birds, that would be 181,500 double-crested cormorants killed. This is three times the entire number that roost at Tommy Thompson Park, the largest colony in North America.
It’s not clear how the total number of these birds killed will be analyzed by the province as there is no requirement for those killing them in Ontario to report the total number to ministry officials, unlike many other game species.
“It is very important to stress that we do not want to see cormorant numbers wiped out, nor would that be possible in Ontario (many of the largest colonies are in areas where hunting cannot occur),” Tonelli states. “We simply want the province to manage the numbers of cormorants that are moving off of the Great Lakes.”
The number of cormorants moving off the Great Lakes remains unknown.
The PC government’s track record on environmental decision making is abysmal, routinely not supported by the advice of conservationists or environmentalists, and often in direct conflict with their recommendations.
Along with its determination to move forward with the environmentally destructive GTA West Highway and Bradford Bypass (the latter was just exempted from a number of key studies typically required under the Environmental Assessment Act) the PC government has actively moved to strip power away from groups tasked with providing advice in key environmental decisions.
Masked within its COVID-19 economic recovery bill, Schedule 6 stripped power away from local conservation authorities who are tasked with maintaining, monitoring and protecting Ontario’s network of watersheds that 14 million residents call home, while supporting the province’s array of animal and plant life. To do this job, a key piece of the conservation authorities’ work is to review development applications that are proposed within its watersheds. These reviews are crucial to not only ensure the protection of the watershed, but to make sure the proposed home or business being proposed is protected from risks such as flooding and erosion.
Should the developer wish to continue with a proposal to build in a risky area, despite the denial of the conservation authority, Schedule 6 allows an applicant to appeal directly to the Province, and with increased use of veto power that previously was only used in incredibly rare circumstances, the PCs now routinely disregard the authority of these provincial conservation agencies, ordering the issuance of permits, even if their scientists say it is damaging to the environment, or even dangerous. All of this was hidden inside Bill 229, an omnibus budget bill that was marketed to the public as a plan for economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The PCs have also consistently relied upon the heavy handed Ministerial Zoning Order (MZO) mechanism which allows the provincial government to approve development applications regardless of what the local municipality thinks. A number of these applications have been on environmentally sensitive lands.
The PCs appear disinterested in listening to the government’s own experts.
In 2018, when the cormorant hunting season was initially proposed, an investigation by the CBC found that several biologists with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry spoke out against the proposed cull.
“The implication that introducing an open season for cormorants could improve recreational or commercial fisheries is not supported by science," wrote one report-author cited in the CBC reporting. "It undermines the integrity of the MNRF as a science-based, sustainability-focused resource management agency."
While the proposed cull was shortened from the initially proposed start in March each year, and the daily bag limit was reduced to 15 birds per day from an initial 50 per day, it remains unclear which scientific advice the province relied on when instituting the annual hunting season. And the numbers of birds allowed to be killed each day has never been monitored, so it’s possible that one hunter is shooting even more than 50 a day.
For Hobson, there is no evidence suggesting cormorant populations are increasing at an unsustainable rate. Even if that were the case, natural processes have shown that when cormorant numbers get too large, birds begin to die off, whether that’s from a reduction in food sources, or disease among the population.
In 2018, the TRCA received a number of reports from concerned residents who found cormorants at Tommy Thompson Park in obvious distress. Tests later found the birds were suffering from Newcastle disease, a neurological sickness that affects large colonies of cormorants, fuelled by a large population.
“It is to be expected, and is completely natural, for disease to spread through large populations of wildlife – it is one way that nature restores balance when a population becomes too large. So far there are reports of about 100 individuals (cormorants) that have died from the disease. This is a very small percentage of the 60,000 – 70,000 individuals in the Tommy Thompson Park colony,” the TRCA website states.
Hobson says this is just one of the ways nature ensures its own limits on cormorant populations. It’s unclear if the province considered these naturally occurring balances when it pushed through its decision to let hunters use their guns instead.
Email: [email protected]
COVID-19 is impacting all Canadians. At a time when vital public information is needed by everyone, The Pointer has taken down our paywall on all stories relating to the pandemic and those of public interest to ensure every resident of Brampton and Mississauga has access to the facts. For those who are able, we encourage you to consider a subscription. This will help us report on important public interest issues the community needs to know about now more than ever. You can register for a 30-day free trial HERE. Thereafter, The Pointer will charge $10 a month and you can cancel any time right on the website. Thank you
Submit a correction about this story