JUNE 14, 2014
IN JULY 1998, a local fisherman had some parting words as a research team prepared to launch a boat for Naubinway Island in northern Lake Michigan: “Take your time. Get as many cormorants as you can while you’re out there. We won’t tell.”
It’s a scene that could have played out in many North American fishing communities: commercial and recreational fishermen historically have reviled the double-crested cormorant, one of six species from an ancient family of seabirds that inhabit the United States and Canada. In March 1998, only a few months earlier, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had issued an order that allowed for controlled killing of the federally protected birds at fish farms and publicly owned fish hatcheries. And in July, the same month that the researchers set out from Naubinway Port, nine men slaughtered more than 800 cormorants on New York’s Little Galloo Island, leaving “countless chicks” behind “to bake in the sun or starve in their nests.” The area’s economy revolved around recreational fishing, and locals, according to coverage in The New York Times, considered the perpetrators to be heroes.
Linda Wires, a conservation biologist, was part of the Naubinway Island research team, and in The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah she opens her detailed academic assessment of the bird’s troubled history in North America with an account of these events. She’s writing at a moment when US policy toward the double-crested cormorant hangs in something of a balance. Two depredation orders that have allowed for the killing of an estimated hundreds of thousands of the birds will expire in June 2014. Wires expects the orders will be extended, but she argues here for extensive adjustments to policy and public attitude, calling for more honest, science-based, and creative responses to any problems the birds pose.
In some ways, it’s easy to explain the hatred toward the birds. Cormorants are profoundly good at catching fish, and humans are among the few predators the adult birds face. The birds are effective divers, fast and strong swimmers, and even though it’s not clear how they use their sight — which is excellent in some respects but subpar in others — their ability to retrieve a wide range of prey allows them to survive in hostile environments. Fishing communities and a small number of scientists say double-crested cormorants — the most populous and widespread cormorant in North America — deplete desirable fish populations in coastal and lake systems and on the southern US fish farm industry. Because double-crested cormorants form dense nesting colonies and produce copious amounts of guano, they also dramatically alter local ecosystems, killing trees and plants and changing soil chemistry. In some cases, they can drive away local populations of more well-liked water birds.
But cormorants also evoke antipathy rooted in ignorance and long-held prejudice. With their long, snakelike necks and “reptilian facial features,” the birds resemble, as Wires puts it, “something ancient and pterodactyl.” Descriptions of the birds — the family and species both — can register disgust and fear over their “ominous” appearance, their “bat- or vulture-like” form when they spread their wings while standing, and even their dark color. John Milton, describing Satan’s flight to Paradise in Paradise Lost, invokes a cormorant. And Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Coleridge all use the cormorant to describe gluttony.
Recent North American hostility toward the double-crested cormorant also includes a dose of historical amnesia: it can seem as though the birds are newcomers, because even though they are native to North America, many of the most visible colonies were essentially wiped out in an earlier period. In a section titled “Relentless Exploitation and a History of Carnage,” Wires tells how in colonial America, both native peoples and European settlers killed the birds and disturbed their nesting areas. By the end of the 19th century, the birds no longer bred in New England and had declined significantly in eastern Canada and Quebec. Then in the 1950s and 1960s, those left suffered from the effects of DDT and other chemical contaminants.
But then the tide started to shift. The growing concern about environmental issues in the 1970s led to the first notable efforts to protect double-crested cormorants. Most significantly, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) that, when first enacted in 1918, had excluded cormorants and other “vermin” birds — including eagles, hawks, and owls — changed course and designated the birds as protected. Some states even started restoration programs.
The population rebounded. The birds recovered at the same time that the US fish farm industry was growing, and by the mid-1980s, double-crested cormorants had access to thousands of acres of ready food in catfish and baitfish ponds. And so in 1986 the USFWS issued permits for some fish producers to kill the birds, and in 1998 and 2003 permits for the first and second standing depredation orders.
Under depredation orders, double-crested cormorants are killed at roosting, feeding, and nesting sites; in one process, known as egg oiling, sprayed oil cuts off oxygen and keeps the embryos from developing in otherwise intact eggs. Even so, as Wires points out, an estimated one million-plus double-crested cormorants inhabit North America. Although the bulk of scientific studies contend that the birds are far less damaging than assumed to desirable fish populations, she acknowledges that killing levels currently eliminate less than five percent of the population on an annual basis, so any call for change takes place on a fairly abstract plane.
In China and Japan, the birds have long been trained to retrieve fish for humans — an intriguing example of interspecies cooperation — but as Richard King explains in The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History, the practice survives in Japan only as a cultural relic and has come under severe criticism. Wires is more drawn to programs enacted in Canada, a country that, despite its own history of wildlife destruction, now offers some examples of successful initiatives, most notably efforts to train the highly adaptable birds away from their most destructive nesting practices. But as Wires explains, although Canada has more breeding cormorants than the United States, the birds don’t overwinter there in large numbers, and no area in Canada has fisheries comparable to the catfish industry in Mississippi’s Delta region. Wires sees limited attempts to control threats to some fish populations as reasonable. But the current US system is a mess, pitting federal agencies against each other, with the widespread destruction of the birds emerging in the name of interagency cooperation. And the various agencies are in obvious conflict with private efforts to protect the birds. Wires describes how the Michigan Nature Association purchased islands that it runs as nature sanctuaries. Federal Wildlife Service’s personnel wait just outside a 500-yard buffer zone, killing the birds as soon as they cross the line.
When control does take place, Wires argues, the associated scientific studies have to be sensitive to a complex array of variables, and management programs must be genuinely open to adjustments based on fish population recovery; so-called adaptive management, she writes, too often is used as simply a means to justify the killing of unwanted birds.
She also firmly points to the responsibility shared, for example, by the catfish industry, which transformed “a floodplain along major migratory flyways into densely stocked, unprotected fishponds.” Since current US policies are expensive and of questionable effectiveness, she advocates farm modification programs and suggests we might consider replacing culling programs with direct compensation to fish farmers. But by far the biggest push Wires makes is for understanding. That’s not a soft statement, even though it’s not entirely clear to me what US cormorant policy would look like if Wires were constructing it. She asks recreational fishermen to adjust their own expectations and realize that fish population declines are attributable to many other factors. And she asks armchair ecologists, amateur nature enthusiasts, and even conservation programs to accept that the wildlife they love might evolve, that they might require a new aesthetic and conceptual framework.
For general introductions to the species and cormorant family, I recommend Dennis Wild’s The Double-Crested Cormorant: Symbol of Ecological Conflict and Richard King’s beautifully written worldwide survey of the bird family. Wires’s book, too, with its thorough consideration of the science and history of the double-crested cormorant, is surprisingly readable, given the density of information it covers, and it repeatedly proved engaging for this general reader on broader questions of value and balance, and in its descriptions of a fascinating bird and its associated challenges. In her 1930 introduction to classical thought in The Greek Way, Edith Hamilton contrasts the “embroider[ed]” notions of English poets with the “facts” of the world, as earlier seen in classical Greece. To the Greeks, Hamilton argues, “Birds were birds and nothing else, but how beautiful a thing was a bird […].”In The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah, Wires gets us a little bit closer to seeing the cormorant as a creature that is not a winged manifestation of our own fears, but simply a bird. Perhaps, someday, we might even learn to call it beautiful.