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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cormorants Slaughtered

Air Date: Week of

Several weeks ago, researchers in New York State made a gruesome discovery. On Little Gallou, a small island off the coast of Lake Ontario, they found nearly a thousand double-crested cormorants shot dead. The mass killing was one of the worst of any federally protected creature in recent U.S. history. Cormorants are relative newcomers to the Great Lakes, emigrating from the Canadian prairie lakes before World War I. With government protection, the population has now soared to over 8000 active nests on Little Gallou alone. Many area anglers who compete with the birds for fish say that's too many. Brenda Tremblay (TRAHM-blay) of member station W-X-X-I prepared our report.


CURWOOD: Several weeks ago, researchers in New York State made a gruesome discovery. On Little Galloo, a small island off the coast of Lake Ontario, they found nearly 1,000 double-crested cormorants shot dead. The mass killing was one of the worst of any Federally-protected creature in recent US history. Cormorants are relative newcomers to the Great Lakes, emigrating from the Canadian prairie lakes before World War I. Their population built up to about 1,000 nesting pairs throughout the Great Lakes before crashing in the 1950s. With government protection, the population has now soared to over 8,000 active nests on Little Galloo alone. Many area anglers who compete with the birds for fish say that's too many. Brenda Tremblay of member station WXXI prepared our report.

(Splashing water, ambient conversation)

MAN: I'm surprised it didn't happen sooner. It was going to happen sooner or later if whoever's in charge of wildlife control didn't do something.

(Calling gulls)

MAN: I know there have been some problems in the past but you never thought it would have gone to this extent.

MAN 2: It was just a barbaric act.

(Bird calls)

ADAMS: When the report first came over and I was sitting in the office with Cliff, and they came over the radio that this had happened, we both sat there as though there had been a great tragedy. I think we were both quite stunned.

TREMBLAY: Connie Adams works with a team of biologists that's been studying the double-crested cormorants of Little Galloo Island, 6 miles off the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. With more than 8,000 nesting pairs of cormorants, Little Galloo Island is the largest nesting colony for the sea bird in the United States.

MAN: Okay, undo that nut. Bring it on board and undo that nut. There's an anchor right underneath.

(Metal clanking, splashing)

TREMBLAY: Researchers came ashore to collect pellets and check on the nests in late July. But instead of finding thriving nestlings, they discovered carcasses, piles of them, and most of the dead were chicks too young to fly. Cliff Schneider, who leads the team that made the discovery, says he thinks the killers came to the island in the early evening after fishermen and boaters had returned to shore. He stands in a clearing and points to dozens of twisted, fly-covered remains.

(Bird calls)

SCHNEIDER: See, what they had done is they came in here and the chicks were huddled together. So you....from what we had found, probably, the had probably 5 boxes of shells, 130 rounds of this cheap stuff, stuff that wouldn't make much noise.

TREMBLAY: Mr. Schneider's team counted 840 dead cormorants. They discovered another 100 wounded birds, and they had to euthanize many of them. Mr. Schneider says he spent several hours walking around the 52-acre island gazing in disbelief at the heaps of dead birds. He paused when he came to a clearing.

SCHNEIDER: And I looked down, and there was one chick that was on its back. And when I walked by its head was up and moving around. The chick was still alive and just strewn amidst, you know, 50 or so birds that had been slaughtered. And this chick had been hurt, and was in tough shape. And the fact that it was on its back and was sitting there and still struggling for life, I mean that's....that to me was the worst part of the whole thing.

(Calling birds, urgent)

PIZELLA: Smile, you're on candid camera. (Another man repeats.) Let's look captive and smile for them. We've learned a lot in the last 2 days. (Laughter)

TREMBLAY: Standing on a dock 6 miles away, Richard Pizella and 3 of his buddies from work are getting their picture taken. They've been looking forward to this fishing trip all summer. They drove 7 hours from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, pooled their money, and hired a charter captain to take them fishing off the coast of Henderson Harbor, a small fishing village on the eastern coast of Lake Ontario.

PIZELLA: One, two, three, let me get up here. (A shutter clicks.)

TREMBLAY: The four men grin with pride as they hold up the day's catch. Fourteen walleye and 2 enormous trout. They dump the fish into white buckets. The iridescent scales glisten in the sun while Captain Mitch Franz collects his money. About $600 for 2 days of fishing. Captain Franz is 1 of 60 charter captains that make a living by fishing out of Henderson Harbor. But these days, his clients can't catch any small-mouth bass, and he thinks the cormorant is to blame.

FRANZ: The bird is out of whack. There are no animals out there, there's no fox, there's no raccoons. We don't have any eagles here. There's nothing here to prey on that bird. So that bird is sitting in a piece of property that is prime for just increasing and increasing. And you can see, over the last 4 or 5 years that population has doubled and tripled.

TREMBLAY: The cormorant's population has increased dramatically since the 1970s, when the use of pesticides and hunting had reduced its numbers to less than 200 nesting pairs on Lake Ontario. In 1972, Federal wildlife officials added the double-crested cormorant to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Since then, the cormorant population on Little Galloo Island has skyrocketed. At the same time, the bass population in this harbor has decreased since the 1980s. Not since the spotted owl controversy in the Pacific Northwest has a single species of bird caused so much anger and frustration.

FRANZ: I've been after the department now for over 10 years to put some controls on the bird population out there.

(Hosing sounds)

TREMBLAY: While Captain Mitch hoses down his boat, a cormorant circles the dock, eyeballing the fish in the buckets and swimming low in the water with a sinister profile of a little Loch Ness Monster. Another charter captain pulls up and unloads a small party of fishermen with only a few fish. Captain Drew Ditch grew up in Henderson Harbor. His grandfather started this charter business before he was born.

DITCH: When I was a kid and you used to go out here around the islands with my grandfather, you'd see, you know, mallards and widgeon and teal and, you know, all kinds of different ducks and water fowl nesting on the islands and stuff. Now, every rock you see has a cormorant sitting on it.

TREMBLAY: Captain Ditch shrugs. He says he can't make a living here any more. So in October, he's heading for Florida to work in the stone crabbing business. Neither he nor Captain Franz have any sympathy for the dead cormorants on Little Galloo Island.

FRANZ: I think that the people around here probably have gotten fed up with the Department and the Fish and Wildlife Service and all the people who are from the Audubon Society and all the bird lovers' society. Yeah, they all love the birds. But the problem is, those people aren't paying the bills.

TREMBLAY: The incident on Little Galloo Island is only the latest and most dramatic in a series of illegal killings of water fowl in the United States this year. On July 23rd, city officials in Carrollton, Texas, bulldozed a rookery of Federally-protected egrets and herons, killing hundreds of birds after people complained about the odor and noise. Other mass bird killings in Arkansas and Oklahoma have wildlife managers worried about violence against protected species.

(Bird calls, surf)

TREMBLAY: The bird, a goose-sized black bird with an orange beak and a croak like a drunken belch, seems like a poor match for well-outfitted anglers. Sport fishing is a $50 million business in New York State, but here in Henderson Harbor, the harbor closest to Little Galloo Island, fishing revenues are down. In several southern states, catfish farmers have permission to shoot cormorants eating from their private catfish ponds. But sport fishermen in the north have no such recourse. Captain Franz says he's tired of competing with the cormorants, which reportedly eat 1.4 million pounds of fish every year.

FRANZ: He's not like your average fisherman. If it's rough out a lot of guys don't go out. If it's raining out and blowing, people don't go out. That cormorant, 50,000 of them sit here for 150 to 180 days and they fish 7 days a week from the day they get here till the time they leave. They don't care if it's hot, cold, raining, wet, windy. They're fishing.

TREMBLAY: Nobody on this dock in Henderson Harbor thinks the mass bird killing on Little Galloo Island was a crime.

(Bird calls)

TREMBLAY: On the island the dead birds are quickly deflating in the late summer heat. Flies cover the carcasses, and near the shore only heaps of white bones and tufts of black feathers indicate that anything unusual happened here. Cliff Schneider and his team are still collecting data for a study of the bird's diet for state officials. While they're walking and stooping to collect pellets, a red fishing boat approaches, slows down, and begins to circle the island.

SCHNEIDER: This close to shore, I think they just came in to take a look and see what we were up to.

TREMBLAY: Mr. Schneider concedes that the fishermen in Henderson Harbor may have a legitimate gripe. But he says shooting the birds on Little Galloo Island won't solve the angler's problems.

SCHNEIDER: There are about 25,000 birds on this island, cormorants. And removing 1,000 of them isn't going to make fishing any better, isn't going to make, you know, improve the economic situation in the village of Henderson and with the guys in that. The only solution to this biologically, if that's the case, is a longer-term program to manage that. So I don't think they accomplished anything biologically. And from the standpoint of political, what they did out here is just drive people further apart.

TREMBLAY: Cliff Schneider says that the decline in small-mouth bass may be due to other less visible influences, such as the increase of zebra mussels in Lake Ontario, the decreasing phosphorus level, and predation by other fish. The cormorant, he says, makes a good scapegoat.

(A boat motor revs up)

TREMBLAY: But charter captain Mitch Franz just doesn't buy it.

FRANZ: The cormorant is not going to become extinct.

TREMBLAY: Captain Franz says he's seen thousands of cormorants diving together for bass. He says he's seen too many of his friends go out of business in Henderson Harbor. And people here, he says, are more important than the water turkeys on Little Galloo Island.

(Ambient conversation and laughter in the background)

FRANZ: We don't have Kodak, we don't have Xerox, Bausch and Lomb. Two major corporations closed in Carthage. You know, those are people out of jobs. We're the north country, you know, we've been tourism for 3 generations here. We continue to be tourism. And if people want to catch fish, they're going to go someplace else. They're not going to come here. And we need people to come here. We need the business.

(Bird calls)

TREMBLAY: The New York Bureau of Fisheries will publish the results of its study from Little Galloo Island on December 15th. But even if the Bureau presents scientific evidence that the cormorants are eating large quantities of bass and therefore hurting the local economy, it's unlikely that the US Fish and Wildlife Service will take any action to thin the birds' population, as long as they aren't damaging private property. It will be up to the people who live here to find a way to compete with the voracious cormorants, and to find a way to reconcile with each other, after the violence on Little Galloo Island. For Living on Earth, I'm Brenda Tremblay in Henderson Harbor, New York.

(Bird calls continue, loudly)

CURWOOD: And this update to our story. We've learned that several persons have been called before a Federal Grand Jury investigating the cormorant slaughter. They include at least 2 Lake Ontario fishing boat operators.



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