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South Carolina cormorant hunting season could reduce numbers that migrate to north country fisheries


Fewer double-breasted cormorants are expected to migrate north to fisheries in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River this spring, as hunters in South Carolina will be given liberty to kill the birds with firearms on the Santee Cooper lakes in February and March.

Launched by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, the unprecedented program is expected to enroll about 300 volunteers who will hunt cormorants with shotguns over the two-month season. The effort, which has been highly praised by anglers, could reduce the population of cormorants that migrate south during the winter months by a few thousand, according to Derrell A. Shipes, chief of statewide wildlife projects for the agency.

Although cormorants are federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty, the agency acquired a depredation order from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to approve the program by proving the bird population has harmed fisheries on the 161,000-acre lake system. The system includes Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie, which are home to numerous fishing tournaments.

“The migratory population of cormorants has increased greatly, but our population of birds that nest here has not increased,” Mr. Shipes said. “The growth in this population is due to migratory birds, and these birds are nesting and being produced in New York state, Canada and across the Northeast.”

Known for their voracious fish appetite, cormorants are roughly 24 to 34 inches long with black feathers and an orange patch of facial skin. They swim and dive under water to catch fish.

Research has documented that cormorants are eating blueback herring, threadfin shad and other forage fish that are the main food sources for bass, striped bass and other gamefish in the Santee Cooper lakes, Mr. Shipes said.

It has not yet been documented that cormorants feed on gamefish at the lakes, although studies in Northeastern states have concluded they also feed on smallmouth bass and yellow perch.

The program was launched “to limit the problems these birds have on our forage fish population,” Mr. Shipes said. “We believe these cormorants are impacting our ability to move these fish through the lakes’ dams in the spring. I believe we’re the first state to ask the public to participate in this. The program is free from a cost standpoint, so if we kill a couple of thousand, that would be a good start. If the program is successful, I think we’re open to continuing or expanding it.”

To qualify to hunt cormorants during the season in South Carolina, volunteers must have a hunting license and attend an instructional class to receive a special permit. They are required to report the number of birds they kill, and may do so only using shotguns.

Mr. Shipes is hopeful that the program will inspire agencies from other states affected by cormorants to consider establishing similar measures to curb the ballooning population.

“We need some type of (broad) strategy to deal with this population,” he said. “The more that’s done consistently across the entire range of the bird’s population would be most beneficial.”

In Northern New York, a large population of migratory birds that has nested along Lake Ontario’s eastern shore and the St. Lawrence River has been a source of irritation over the years for anglers by feeding on the fish population.

The St. Lawrence River has been home over the last five years to some 3,000 nesting pairs, including in Canadian waters.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation took notice of the problem in 1998, when a group of fishermen led by Ronald J. Ditch, a Henderson Harbor fishing guide, took cormorant control into its own hands by killing nearly 2,000 of the federally protected birds on Little Galloo Island in Lake Ontario’s Henderson Harbor. Those fishermen all were fined for violating federal law.

DEC started to oil eggs in cormorants’ nests in 1999 on Little Galloo, an uninhabited 52-acre island that at the time was home to one of the largest colonies in the state with 7,000 nesting pairs. But that control method, which uses corn oil to clog tiny egg holes, has helped reduce the island population to fewer than 1,750 nesting pairs today.

Mr. Ditch, still a fishing guide at age 78, said he does not believe South Carolina’s effort will significantly decrease the migratory population of birds in the north country.

But he said the program could set a precedent needed to spur other states to launch similar initiatives.

“I’m tickled to death that South Carolina had the foresight, knowledge and ability to make this happen,” he said. “I just wish this could happen in New York state and other Atlantic Flyway states. The state could make money on this, and I know a bunch of people who would pay $100 to go out and shoot these birds.”

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