“The worst wild game management decision in Canadian history”
by Barry Kent MacKay
Artist & naturalist: www.barrykentmackay.ca
Director of Canadian & Special Programs
Doug Ford, the recently elected prime minister of Ontario, who at one time claimed to be an ethical vegetarian, has just proposed what I believe is the single worst wild game management decision in Canadian history.
Did I say “game”? “Gamey” barely describes the essentially inedible double-crested cormorant, a species that was twice nearly wiped out in Ontario, and is not “game” by any traditional definition.
Yet the double-crested cormorant is now to be called “game,” except that for the first time since game laws came into being, it will be legal to leave the carcasses of birds who have been shot as “game” to rot.
“Hunting” has to be redefined
“Hunting” has to be redefined to accommodate the coming double-crested cormorant massacre, through amending the Ontario Fish & Wildlife Conservation Act, so that hunters will be allowed to waste “game,” always before a prosecutable offense.
The bag limit for double-crested cormorants is to be 50 per day. The season will run for more than nine months, from March 15, the start of the cormorant nesting season, to December 31, when all but a few stragglers will have migrated south.
Federation of Anglers & Hunters put out the “hit” contract
Putting double-crested cormorants on the hit list for regional extermination is the Doug Ford administration response to lobbying by the Ontario Federation of Anglers & Hunters, who must now abandon any pretense that hunting is not cruel and wasteful.
Except among those of us who have come to know them well, double-crested cormorants seem to promote an irrational, almost visceral hatred among fishers, who naively see them as competitors for “their” fish, ravenously gulping down every soon to be huge walleye, bass, or tackle-busting trout in sight, leaving behind empty water as they sweep across the water in ever-burgeoning numbers, excreting their odorous guano on innocent trees and once verdant landscapes, turning valuable timber into rotting wood skeletons.
“Most reviled of native wildlife”
It is because double-crested cormorants are among the most reviled of native wildlife that so much effort has gone into determining their actual impact on human interests.
In 2003 five American and Canadian scientists published a special report for the American Ornithologists Union, in which they conducted a review, some 31 pages in length, of all such studies.
Their review is not the sort of thing Doug Ford would ever read, all technical, full of acronyms, nuanced and referenced. But it reached five conclusions of note:
“There is no good evidence that cormorants cause significant fisheries problems except at aquaculture and hatchery sites;
“The solutions proposed, primarily take, would be ineffective at aquaculture and hatchery sites, yet potentially destructive to continental cormorant populations;F
“How `success’ of a control program would be defined is unclear; and
‘Persecution of a bird species”
“There is no monitoring program in place, or proposed, that could evaluate success, or detect effects on continental cormorant populations.
“Consequently,” the review finished, “it appears that [cormorant population reduction schemes] constitute persecution of a bird species, rather than [addressing] real problems at aquaculture and hatchery sites.”
Ignorance about apex predators
Doug Ford’s plan to target double-crested cormorants in Ontario is worse than the U.S. cormorant persecutions, which are unfortunately ongoing, despite the advice of the American Ornithologists Union.
The issue in Ontario is not fish hatcheries, nor the catfish aquaculture of places like Texas and Mississippi, just ignorance about the importance of apex predators in maintaining a vibrant and healthy ecosystem and biodiversity.
The entire North American population of double-crested cormorants, who range from Alaska to Newfoundland and south deep into Mexico, is smaller than the human population of the greater Toronto metropolitan area––although work by two American scientists studying past records and observations have demonstrated that double-crested cormorants were once comparable in abundance to passenger pigeons and Eskimo curlews, both long since exterminated.
Suppose cormorants ate only fish species of interest to sport and/or commercial fishers. That there are still numerous double-crested cormorants remains good news. The reason is that it indicates a healthy stock of whatever fish are being consumed.
If you were to put a double-crested cormorant into an indoor swimming pool and add goldfish, eventually there would be no goldfish. And then the cormorant, unable to fly elsewhere, would die of starvation.
This does not happen in nature. Predators do not die as a result of eating all their prey, because the abundance of prey species, in a naturally evolved predator/prey relationship, determines the number of predators, not the other way around.
Naturally evolved predation is “compensatory”, not “additive.”
“Balance of nature”
This means that prey species evolve to breed in sufficient abundance to withstand such normal and perennial sources of mortality as disease, bad weather, and yes, predation.
Predators produce no more offspring than the prey base can feed. If the numbers of prey animals abnormally decline, predators are exhausted by the increased effort required to find prey and die off, until the always much more numerous prey species rebounds, enabling predators to follow the prey in recovery.
For every egg a cormorant lays, a fish, depending on species, will lay dozens, hundreds or even thousands of eggs. Yet, of whatever number of eggs are laid, only two, on average overall, must reach maturity and reproduce to maintain a population equilibrium.
In the older, younger days of our understanding of ecological principals this dynamic was often called “maintaining the balance of nature.”
This phrase is now generally considered too simplistic, at least in part because it feeds into the misconception that population sizes are determined by simple two-species food chains, in the absence of the multitude of other influencing factors, but partly also because there is no steady state in which X amount of prey supports Y amount of predators.
Both the abundance of prey and the numbers of predators fluctuate in response to variable habitat conditions, but always in synchronicity with each other.
“Additive” predation is what we imagined occurring with the cormorant and the goldfish in the indoor swimming pool. This is predation exceeding what would occur under natural conditions, to the point where it removes the species’ ability to reproduce.
Additive predation by cormorants can occur under contrived conditions, as in fish ponds or in unprotected hatcheries, but nesting cannot depend on such sources, and they are not part of anything approaching a natural ecosystem.
Human predation is additive
Most predation by humans, by contrast, is additive. Human fishers and hunters in the technologically developed world are not dependent for survival and reproductive success upon what they catch or shoot, so can remain abundant regardless of the abundance of prey.
Human fishers and hunters are also equipped to kill in unlimited quantity, if not restrained by strictly enforced bag limits, irrespective of the ability of the depleted prey species to rebound.
This is why humans have killed hundreds of species to extinction and have killed thousands of species to regional extirpation––quite unlike cormorants, who have never exterminated or even demonstrably harmed any species.
Cormorants are indicators of habitat health
The Ontario Federation of Anglers & Hunters, which is behind the impending Ontario double-crested cormorant massacre, claims to be committed to healthy lakes and rivers.
It is odd if they are so uninformed as to not realize that cormorants are indicators of such health, including of robust populations of their prey.
Disdain for science & empathy
Ontario prime minister Doug Ford shares with his apparent role model, U.S. President Donald Trump, a disdain for science, facts, consultation, and empathy.
Doug Ford probably bought into the much-debunked belief, amplified by the Ontario Federation of Anglers & Hunters, that fish consumed by cormorants would otherwise be available to commercial and sport fishing interests.
Double-crested cormorants are easily shot and highly vulnerable. There is no “fair chase” or “sustainable use” involved in killing them.
Widespread suffering is inevitable
When hunters are encouraged to shoot any and all adult double-crested cormorants in a nesting colony, widespread suffering is inevitable––and not just among the target birds.
Double-crested cormorants nest in colonies of mixed bird species, all of whom will be disturbed by shooting, and may abandon their nests, as occurred in 2016 when USDA Wildlife Services massacred cormorants near the mouth of the Columbia River in response to complaints from salmon fishers.
Cormorants need both parents
Young double-crested cormorants hatch unfeathered, so ugly that only a parent can love them––which cormorant mothers and fathers do, protecting their young from the elements.
Both parents need to tend double-crested cormorant hatchlings, feeding them, shading them, bringing them water as well as food.
Would it not be deemed cruel to put a baby bird in the oven, turn the temperature to 90 degrees or more Fahrenheit and leave the bird to die?
That degree of abuse will be the fate of who knows how many hundreds, or thousands of baby cormorants under the Doug Ford administration edict.
Slob hunting legitimized
With slob hunting now legitimized by the Doug Ford government, watch too for killing of loons and other birds who dare to eat fish and are easily mistaken for cormorants.
As the Doug Ford government holds a majority of the seats in the Ontario Parliament, which is like having control of both the House and Senate in U.S. politics, there can be no effective political opposition to the cormorant massacre.
Ford’s term is four years. He may not be re-elected, but it will take further years to undo the coming ecological damage, while the cruelty and suffering can never be undone.