A proposed hunt of the double-crested cormorant has hunters and environmentalists at odds.

The bird, nearly extinct in the 1970s, has made a comeback around the Great Lakes in its thousands. The problem is it has a huge appetite, and its feces are acidic. 

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is suggesting a March to December hunting season, with one of the highest bag limits among waterfowl, of 50 per day.

While the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) is in support of controlling the bird’s population, it would like to see some changes to how it is carried out.

The eight-month season means hunts of the three-foot long bird would take place during Ontario’s recreational boating season. Because unlike ducks, they fly close to the water, hunters shooting at them could accidentally hit other people on the water.

Lauren Tonelli

For that reason, resource manager for OFAH, Lauren Tonelli, would like to see a split season.

“In our official submission we actually suggested they split it up into a spring season and a fall season,” she says. “Just because that is more consistent with other waterfowl species.

“The provision to be able to hunt from a boat as long as it’s not moving is very consistent with how we hunt waterfowl now. The overlap with cottage country we have actually suggested they don’t do that. In our proposal, we’ve suggested that their season end.”

She says the birds are a protected migratory bird in the US and states near the Great Lakes are looking to Ontario to help manage the populations.

“New York, in particular, sees a lot of negative effects of cormorants,” says Tonelli. “They have been asking Ontario to control our population of cormorants because they are kind of a cross-border issue.”

The Georgian Bay Association is not as convinced of the problems the bird brings. The GBA is an organization that works to provide protection around the Georgian Bay ecosystem.

Executive Director Rupert Kindersley says before any hunt is initiated some science needs to happen.

“One of the issues that we have with this suggestion is that there is really no studies done to link cormorants with declines in fish stocks at all,” says Kindersley “So there is no science behind this proposal. Our suggestion to the government has been that they, first of all, do the science.”

Rupert Kindersley

He also points out that unlike other waterfowl that are hunted in Ontario, the cormorant is not a good game bird in terms of eating.

“I think there are a number of issues here,” he says. “One of them is cormorants are inedible. Therefore hunting them just for the sake of killing them is considered by First Nations in particular, but by many others as highly disrespectful.”

In an email to the CBC on the topic of a cormorant hunt, Jolanta Kowalski said the idea was initiated from a number of fronts.

“[The government] is taking action in response to the concerns expressed by our commercial fishing industry, property owners and individuals that double-crested cormorants have had a negative impact on the environment.”

Kindersley questions how much the bird is really affecting properties with its toxic waste. The claim is the feces kills trees it nests in and any ground vegetation it comes into contact with.

“That’s only when they are in very, very large numbers I think,” he offers. “For instance where we are concerned in Georgian Bay I don’t think it occurs there at all. They nest out on the rocks.”

Tonelli says in areas where damage is being done, a controlled hunt would provide some relief to landowners and commercial fisheries.

Cormorants in a tree.

“Having a manageable, sustainable population that is not having those negative ecological impacts that we are seeing with the huge colonies (is desirable),” she says. “This would give landowners and concerned environmentalists a way to help reduce those populations into a more sustainable level.”

Kindersley says the bigger concern is if the cormorant does make its way to inland lakes. Their main food is a small fish called the round goby. The birds are following this invasive species as it moves towards cottage country.

“There is some anecdotal evidence that they are eating large numbers of round goby and in fact, the round goby are moving beyond the Great Lakes up into the inland lakes and the cormorants are following the round goby into those inland lakes,” he explains. “And that could cause a problem because you wouldn’t traditionally have cormorants in those lakes, so they will eat whatever they can find there and they may disrupt natural fish stocks in those inland lakes.”

While a hunt should result in a reduction of the cormorant population, Kindersley points to a recent study that suggests otherwise.

“There’s been some reports recently for instance that if you actually do a cormorant hunt then the cormorants will actually breed more,” he says.

Whatever the recommendations from the MNRF may be, all sides feel a decision needs to be made soon. Tonelli put OFAH’s suggestions in at the start of the New Year and is awaiting a response.

The MNRF has indicated it is on its own timetable.

“Public consultation on the proposed hunting season has closed, and we are in the process of reviewing all feedback received before making any decisions,” says Kowalski in the recent CBC email.