by Linda R. Wires, with original illustrations by Barry Kent MacKay
Yale University Press (P.O. Box 209040, New Haven, CT 06520), 2014.
368 pages, illustrated. $30.00 hardcover.
Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
The ANIMALS 24-7 research files include coverage of sixty-odd public controversies involving cormorants during the past decade. Each began in more-or-less the same manner, with fishers, fish farmers, and politicians erroneously blaming cormorants for the consequences of overfishing, habitat destruction, and short-sighted resource management. Each ended in the same manner as well, with large numbers of cormorants dead, without the killing accomplishing any of the alleged ecological objectives behind it.
Reported Bo Peterson of the Charleston Post & Courier on April 8, 2014, describing an almost typical example, “The 800 hunters who shot cormorants on the Marion-Moultrie lakes inFebruary took more than 10 each on average.But it barely made a dent, people who frequent the lake say.More than 11,000 were taken in the month-long depredation hunt thatthe South Carolina Department of Natural Resources licensed as a removal ‘event’under pressure from legislators. Angler groups have argued the largenumber of birds on the lakes were killing too many game fish and destroying cypress trees where they roost.”
The only noteworthy variation from the script was that the Marion-Moultrie cormorant massacre was undertaken by private citizens at their own expense, rather than by USDA Wildlife Services at public expense.
In July 2014, however, opponents of cormorant culling at East Sand Island near the mouth of the Columbia River turned out at a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hearing in Astoria, Oregon, on a scheme to kill 16,000 double-crested cormorants to reduce predation on salmon and steelhead. The Corps of Engineers holds that the East Sand Island cormorant population has grown from 100 breeding pairs on the island in 1989, to 14,900 breeding pairs today, who are allegedly consuming about 11 million young salmon and steelhead per year.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has for at least a decade issued similar claims about the estimated 9,175 nesting pairs of Caspian terns on East Sand Island––the world’s largest Caspian tern breeding colony, including about 70% of the West Coast population. Both Caspian terns and cormorants have been systematically persecuted, to little avail, along with California sea lions, who also eat young salmon and steelhead.
Reality is that young salmon and steelhead have for millennia been staple foods of other wildlife where the Columbia meets the Pacific Ocean. The fish remained abundant until hydroelectric dams blocked their spawning migrations, beginning in the 1930s.
Fish ladders, trapping and trucking fish around the dams, and killing fish-eating wildlife have all failed to restore the abundance of salmon and steelhead that human residents of the region had come to view as a God-granted bounty.
So long as the dams remain in place––and that is likely to be for many more decades––the fish-centered local economy will remain in prolonged decline, while wildlife massacres serve chiefly to appease the frustration of communities whose major sources of income long since shifted from fishing to managing gas stations, convenience stores, and motels serving people who come to hike and watch birds.
The emergence of opposition to mindless cormorant massacres is a promising development. Even more promising is publication of The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah, by conservation biologist Linda R. Wires, with original illustrations by leading Canadian wildlife artist, ornithologist, and animal advocate Barry Kent MacKay.
Wires’ opus, as a whole, is not easy reading, partly because of the grim history of cormorant massacres that she records, partly because of her thorough approach to reviewing and refuting the official rationales for killing cormorants in case after case. There is no comic relief here, and there are no introductions of memorable characters contributing to ending the persecution of cormorants, though a chapter on MacKay, who is nothing if not memorable, might have been appropriate. But while The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah is unlikely to become a runaway best-seller, it will be appreciated by readers who appreciate an author who––unlike any of the most vociferous foes of cormorants––clearly knows what she is talking about.
Chapter and section headings summarizing the cormorant issue include Aristotle’s Raven: An Introduction to Cormorants; European Colonization and the Making of a Pariah; Fish Ponds and Reservoirs: The Context for Conflict on the Wintering Grounds; Animal Damage Control and the First Standing Depredation Order for Cormorants; A Half Million and Counting: Implementation of Management Policies in the U.S.; Looking North to Canada; and finally, The Science, Management, and Ethics of Today: Review and Critique.
Wires’ most illuminating passages may be those explaining why the fervor to kill cormorants has not spread within Canada to nearly the same extent as it has within the U.S., even though Canada may have as many or more cormorants, and even though fishing in Canada is a proportionally much larger industry relative to the national economy as a whole.
Observes Wire, “There are some superficial similarities: a site-specific approach to resolving conflicts, and actions by provincial and federal agencies as well as private landowners, which can include First Nations communities and conservation authorities. But over the last 15 years, far fewer cormorants have been killed legally in Canada than in the United States, and government-run programs have destroyed just a small fraction of the total number of birds killed across the continent. Numbers taken legally by private landowners are not tracked, but undoubtedly are not comparable to those taken under legal means in the U.S….Since the late 1990s, when significant cormorant management got underway in the U.S., government agencies in Canada have launched culling programs at only a handful of locations.”
The difference in Canadian and American public policy toward cormorants may reflect that, “There is no federal agency in Canada devoted to or responsible for managing ‘nuisance’ wildlife,” Wires continues. “Nor are federal funds allocated to supplement provincial management projects that do so. While the Canadian Wildlife Service issues permits to oil eggs or kill federally protected birds considered a ‘nuisance,’ such as Canada geese, the agency does not do the control work itself. Instead, permits are typically issued to landowners, who then have to perform the control work or hire a private company to do it…Because there is no single leading agency advocating or implementing large-scale cormorant management, no framework has been established or precedent set for coordinated or geographically widespread cormorant control.”
All of this distinctly differs from the role and influence of USDA Wildlife Services, formerly called Animal Damage Control. Wildlife Services, in the U.S., is both the primary agency entrusted with evaluating wildlife problems and recommending solutions, and the chief exterminator hired by government agencies at all levels when killing animals is found to be the “preferred alternative” among those that Wildlife Services recommends. Not surprisingly, Wildlife Services’ “preferred alternative” is usually killing whatever the alleged problem species.
Wires believes, however, that “Perhaps the most distinct and important influence limiting cormorant management in Canada has been the development of stakeholders in Ontario who have strongly challenged cormorant management. Six groups consisting mostly of animal rights and environmental activits, along with a handful of especially determined individuals, have shown a remarkable tenacity and resourcefulness in opposing cormorant control: the Peaceful Parks Coalition, the Animal Alliance of Canada, Born Free USA, Zoocheck Canada, Earthroots, and the Toronto-based Cormorant Defenders International.”
Since 2002 these six organizations and growing numbers of ad hoc coalitions have stood up for cormorants, mostly but not exclusively in Ontario, often advised by Mackay. While cormorants have yet to attract defenders in numbers comparable to the numbers of people who oppose clubbing seal pups, or a variety of other atrocities inflicted upon appealing mammals, cormorants have qualities capable of attracting much broader appreciation than they now enjoy. For example, cormorants are visibly playful, affectionate with their mates, and easily recognized, with spectacular plumage. The cumulative effects of guano in the vicinity of cormorant nesting habitats can be appalling, but the same could be said of many other colonially nesting birds who have vocal and influential advocates.
Probably The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah will not be by itself influential enough to reverse the U.S. cormorant management regime. Probably accomplishing that will require the production of widely viewed documentaries and children’s books, and a lot more work by lawyers than has yet been invested on behalf of cormorants, even in cases where the rationale for killing cormorants is transparently flimsy. But Wires and MacKay have provided the arguments and information to begin to mount a vigorous pro-cormorant defense.