After three seasons of killing, PCs have no idea if their cormorant cull is working
The Ontario government will say it’s not a cull.
The Ontario government will say the decision to allow widespread slaughter of the double-crested cormorant—a native Canadian species—was motivated by a desire to “protect” fish and animals through wildlife management.
According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, sustainable wildlife management is described as “the sound management of wildlife species to sustain their population and habitat over time”, with experts noting these efforts are characterized by detailed monitoring, breeding surveys and analyzing annual trends, like how many young survive to enter the general population in a given season. Accurate data, to model population over time, is then properly collected and analyzed. These plans also include targets and goals—measuring sticks to gauge success of the management practices being funded.
Most importantly, this work is grounded in strong scientific evidence, because whenever humans try to insert their will into the complex web of the natural world, the results are often unpredictable.
The PC government’s decision in 2020 to allow for the killing of cormorants—as many as 15 per hunter per day from September to December—included none of these critical elements of wildlife management.
Under Doug Ford, officials have failed to detail any monitoring efforts in 2020, 2021 or 2022 to determine the number of birds killed. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry was unable to even provide an estimate of the number of kills when asked by The Pointer. Proponents of this hunt, like the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), are equally unaware of any data released regarding the number of birds killed, though they believe the Province “has been working on it”.
In 2021, a ministry spokesperson said: “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,” the spokesperson stated.
Without any effective monitoring, her use of the word "expected" seems apropos. The OFAH 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.
The PCs have failed to provide any management plan for the cormorant or detail publicly how they are measuring the “success” of this far reaching hunt.
And the Ford government has repeatedly failed to acknowledge, or provide scientific backing for allowing this hunt in the first place. Its two main reasons—the threat posed by the birds to fish populations, and the destruction of habitat—are not supported by science. On the contrary, repeated studies have shown that cormorants pose no threat to the species fishermen find commercially valuable, and any destruction caused by their nesting is localized and part of the natural order.
The government’s description of this hunt as wildlife management is misleading at best, and a dangerous lie at worst. The selective slaughter of wild animals—the definition of a cull—is a much more fitting description.
“They have no idea whether this cull is doing anything or having any effect,” Keith Hobson, a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Western Ontario, says. “This is really going in the opposite direction we should be going at this time and age that we’re in—massive biodiversity loss everywhere, massive impact on natural communities…it’s just a sad day for conservation and wildlife management in Canada.”
September 15 to December 31, 2022 was the third season Ontario allowed any hunter with a small game licence and a shotgun to kill double-crested cormorants.
In a press release announcing the new hunting season in 2020, John Yakabuski, then Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, said: “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.”
What he failed to mention was the decision was also done following extensive lobbying from the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) which, among their priorities for the new PC government under Premier Doug Ford, requested some form of management plan be created for cormorants to address the “overabundance” of these birds, as their numbers “appear to be” increasing. Among their suggestions was the listing of double-crested cormorant as a game species—a request the PCs quickly approved.
There is no denying double-crested cormorants, historically, have seen a surge in their numbers around the Great Lakes, with studies finding a 300-fold increase between 1973 and 1993. While the resurgence may appear surprising to some—especially as colonial waterbirds, double-crested cormorants nest in large numbers—their population size is not evidence of overabundance, but what numerous studies have shown to be a return to normal for a species that was nearly wiped out by human activity including hunting and contamination of their natural habitat.
The return of the double-crested cormorant to the Great Lakes has been labelled a conservation success story by Ontario Nature. Since that dramatic return, population numbers have shown signs of stabilizing. Even by the Government of Ontario’s assessment, included with its proposal for the hunt posted on the Environmental Registry of Ontario, cormorant populations “have since stabilized or declined slightly” after the early 2000s.
The colony of double-crested cormorants currently nesting at Tommy Thompson Park in Toronto is the largest breeding colony in North America.
Aside from anecdotal evidence, it’s unclear where OFAH has found its data to support its claim of population “overabundance.”
According to Hobson, the double-crested cormorant is showing declines in all Great Lakes save for Lake Ontario. “Major declines” have been recorded in Lake Erie and Lake Superior. He says this is mainly due to the natural levelling of a species population once it reaches a certain size, as it begins to strain available food in a given area, but also as a result of other factors like avian influenza virus (due to the disease, 2022 was a particularly deadly year for waterfowl).
If there is no need for population control—one of the main reasons for allowing hunters to kill thousands of white-tailed deer in the province every year—why allow the killing of the double-crested cormorant?
Yakabuski claimed in his remarks, it is a result of the “damage” caused by the bird in the communities of hunters, anglers and commercial fisherman.
When asked for further explanation in October 2021, a spokesperson with the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, claimed the hunting season was established as a result of concerns raised by “some hunters and stakeholders, including commercial fishers” about the “potential” harmful impacts of cormorants on fish stocks and shoreline habitat.
When asked to provide evidence to support its claims that the double-crested cormorant is a threat to commercial fish stocks, the Province provided a 2006 assessment report. The document did not include any proof that cormorants are harming commercial fish stocks in Ontario’s Great Lakes. In fact, the study actually found the opposite, stating “direct impacts from cormorant predation on larger game fish may be almost non-existent,” 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 even in particular local circumstances, such as a large colony of cormorants roosting near a small body of water, the impacts from the birds are minimal.
“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.”
The contradictory evidence provided by the Province was not a shock to Professor Hobson, who says the general scientific consensus is that there is no evidence to support the conclusion that double-crested cormorants pose a threat to commercial fish stocks.
“The evidence is overwhelmingly in the other direction,” he says.
Despite plowing ahead with the cull, the PCs have failed to provide any evidence to back the vague, unsubstantiated claims they have made to justify the targeting of cormorants at the behest of hunters.
Adept fishers, studies have found the double-crested cormorant has the ability to shift its major food source with surprising agility in response to changes in its environment. A 2010 study documented how the bird rapidly altered its diet to consist mainly of round goby when the invasive fish began to flourish in the Great Lakes basin. A 2017 study, using a range of scientific techniques, found the diet of double-crested cormorants in Lake Erie and Lake Ontario consisted almost exclusively of alewife—another invasive fish—and round goby.
These are only the latest in a long line of scientific studies that have found the cormorant poses no threat to those species fishermen find valuable.
“Studies have repeatedly shown that in a natural environment, cormorants feed primarily on small, largely non-commercial, shallow-water fish,” reads a 1995 fact sheet from Ontario Nature, published by Environment Canada.
The second reason the PC government has used to justify this hunt—the bird damages habitats and sensitive ecosystems—is equally misleading.
There is no denying that the nesting habits of cormorants, and their acidic guano, can harm the trees in which they choose to roost, eventually killing them and the surrounding plant life. But as Hobson describes in an article published in the journal Avian Conservation and Ecology, “this disturbance regime is natural, overwhelmingly local in scale, and simply can not justify large-scale culling.”
This “destruction” caused by cormorant colonies is actually an integral part of the ecosystem in which they nest. Their droppings return nitrogen and phosphorus back into the freshwater ecosystem.
“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.
A comprehensive analysis completed in 2015, involving a long list of environmental experts, narrowed down the 50 biggest threats to the Great Lakes.
Invasive species, toxic metals, coastal development, sediment loading, climate change and warming temperatures, nuisance algal blooms and contamination, were just a few of the “stressors” identified, currently endangering 20 percent of the Earth’s surface freshwater.
Not surprisingly, the double-crested cormorant did not make the list.
Hobson says it’s time the government considers closing the door it, and the lobbying of OFAH, kicked open.
“It’s poorly thought-out, it was a political reaction, had nothing to do with science, nothing to do with waterbird management or conservation or fisheries and therefore it should be stopped, and let’s get on with a much more intelligent approach to this,” he says.
When The Pointer contacted the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters in 2021, the organization said “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). We simply want the province to manage the numbers of cormorants that are moving off of the Great Lakes.”
OFAH contends that should large colonies of cormorants move off the Great Lakes into smaller inland lakes which do not have large populations of round goby or alewife, their current main food source, they could decimate local fish populations. But, OFAH admits this claim also remains speculative.
“MNRF 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,” the organization said in 2021.
There are still no studies to show cormorants are moving in large numbers off the Great Lakes.
Mark Ryckman, a former senior biologist and now manager of policy for OFAH, says he is not aware of any such research studies completed in the last two years and recommended contacting the MNRF.
Yet, despite the lack of scientific proof to justify killing these birds, he says OFAH has not changed its stance on the hunting season.
The approval of a province-wide hunt for the double-crested cormorant is unprecedented in Ontario, and not only ignores the scientific evidence, but also appears to be an overreaction to the concerns of an extremely vocal minority. As Hobson explains, if these birds are causing issues around small lakes, or damage to property, there are localized solutions that can be implemented, without a need to have open season on a bird across the entire province.
Management plans have been undertaken in Presqu’ile Provincial Park and Middle Island at Point Pelee National Park for years, involving both lethal and non-lethal tactics—management at Presqu’ile shifted to non-lethal and deterrent techniques in 2007.
“You can do all kinds of measures to get rid of them, it doesn’t have to be a province-wide cull of these things,” Hobson says. “It just speaks to complete ignorance, it really does.”
Allowing the general population to take control of wildlife management can be a risky endeavor, especially when the provincial government has failed to provide any data or other proof on the numbers of cormorants being killed. The Pointer has attempted for more than a year to get data from the Province, asking for detailed numbers of cormorants that have been killed, to show the cull is being properly monitored and that residents are not putting the species in danger through over-hunting. Ministry representatives have repeatedly claimed efforts to provide these figures would be made, but they have never been produced.
There has been no indication of any budget approved by the PCs to support proper enforcement and study of the cull. It’s possible that thousands of hunters could be participating, but the government has provided no evidence of responsible management or oversight.
Allowing hunters to effectively enjoy an open season (a wild west scenario) on any species can have disastrous effects.
A cull on wolves in Wisconsin in 2021 saw hunters exceed the quota of kills in less than 60 hours, forcing the State to end the season early.
All the PCs will say is that conservation officers are monitoring to ensure compliance with the cormorant hunt. However, the government refuses to detail how these monitoring efforts are completed, stating “officers have and continue to monitor and enforce regulations related to game birds throughout the province”. One charge was laid in 2021 related to two hunters caught killing cormorants out of the designated season, with each individual fined $250.
As mentioned, the PC government currently has no idea, or has failed to provide numbers, for how many double-crested cormorants have been killed over the last three seasons.
This poorly supervised approach of using the general population can also cause other problems. Members of the public are not trained in wildlife management, and most hunters are not expert ornithologists. This creates the risk that other species of birds will get caught in the crossfire.
Those interested in hunting these birds have expressed such concerns themselves on a Facebook page dedicated to Ontario cormorant hunters.
A Facebook page dedicated to Ontario cormorant hunters, shows some are concerned about mistaking these birds for other species.
(Ontario Cormorant Hunters/Facebook)
Hobson is urging the OFAH to change course, and request that the provincial government end the cull. On its website, the OFAH describes itself as an organization with a “passion for conservation.”
“I think the only thing we can say about it is that both sides should agree that it’s not doing anything, and it’s a black eye on the province and the people involved,” he says. “It is really up to OFAH to change their tune on this and admit that this has been a total disaster and that this should now stop.”
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