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Great Lakes Article:

Proposed cormorant limit is 100, to save fishing
The Post-Standard
By Mark Weiner

The state plans to limit the number of cormorants allowed to live on Oneida Lake, an unprecedented move to protect the $11 million-a-year fishing industry.

The decision, based on a recommendation from a citizens task force, would limit the number of cormorants to 100, or 50 nesting pairs, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

If approved by federal fish and wildlife officials, it would be the first permanent limit set on the bird or wildlife population at Oneida Lake, state officials say.

The move comes five years after controversy over the fish-eating birds exploded into a violent episode at Lake Ontario that attracted national attention. In 1998, fishermen broke federal laws and used shotguns to slaughter some 2,000 cormorants on Little Galloo Island in Henderson Harbor.

The state decided to bring all of the stakeholders together before anyone took action on their own at Oneida Lake. The DEC asked the citizens task force to decide how many of the migratory birds should be allowed to live and breed at Oneida Lake.

When the issue comes up, tensions usually run high. That's why the state hired a facilitator to mediate meetings of the seven-member group representing business, property owners, outdoor clubs and environmental groups.

In 1998, those in the fishing and tourism industry blamed the birds for eating them out of business in the eastern basin of Lake Ontario. State and federal wildlife officials could do little to help. Cormorants are protected by the International Migratory Bird Treaty Act and cannot be harmed.

Now the task force may have found a middle ground at Oneida Lake, known for its abundance and diversity of fish. It's where the number of cormorants surged from one nesting pair in 1984 to 365 nesting pairs in 2000.

At stake, depending on the viewpoint, are the future of the Oneida Lake fishery, lakeside businesses, a threatened bird species known as the common tern and the cormorant itself, which in the 1930s came close to extinction in the Great Lakes.

"There is a whole range of opinions on the issue," said Les Monostory, of Fayetteville, a member of the citizens task force who represents the Izaak Walton League of Central New York.

The DEC officein Syracuse appointed the seven task force members and asked for a recommendation: How many cormorants should be allowed to live and nest on Oneida Lake's islands?

"The DEC has given us a range of between 20 and 100 nesting pairs to decide on," Monostory said. "Depending on which representative you talk with, some of the fishing interests want zero, and some of the bird advocates would prefer to see no limits at all. Some of us are sort of in between."

A couple of weeks ago, the group met for the last time and failed to reach a unanimous decision. Its members favored by 6 to 1 limiting the Oneida Lake population to no more than 100 resident cormorants, and no more than 50 nesting pairs.

DEC Regional Director Ken Lynch said the agency will work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine if additional permits or steps are required before the policy can be implemented next spring.

The one task force member opposed to the new strategy vows that his group will fight the plan.

"We did not think there was sufficient evidence put forth to warrant this dramatic management," said Andy Mason, representing the Federation of New York State Bird Clubs.

Worse yet, Mason said, the state may begin shooting, suffocating or using other means to kill adult cormorants under a proposed rule change that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may implement this fall.

"I'm almost certain they'll be using lethal management to achieve that new goal," he said. "It would be a very bad precedent to set."

Lynch said the plan is to stick to nonlethal ways to limit the population. Those methods include harassment with propane cannons, and the use of reflective Mylar tape to scare away the birds. The state also allows some eggs to be coated with vegetable oil, which clogs the pores of eggs so that embryos don't develop.

Kurt Snyder,president of the Oneida Lake Association, and a member of the state's task force, was among those who wanted to see no cormorants on the lake.

"In the recorded history of modern man, or even when American Indians populated the area, there's no history of cormorants as a breeding presence on Oneida Lake," Snyder said. "Their arrival seems to be contrary to the natural state of Oneida Lake."

Snyder's family owns Wantry Island, the longtime home of the common tern, a threatened bird species in New York state. It was once among the largest tern colonies in the United States. But since the cormorants arrived in 1984, the terns have declined and the island's vegetation has never recovered. It's one of the three islands in the lake where the cormorants have nested.

"Personally, I think the impact on the habitat is paramount," Snyder said. "They've completely destroyed plant life and anything green. These islands will not be there for my son's children. Those islands have been so abused, they are nearly unusable for other species."

As for the Oneida Lake Association, its 3,500 members initially favored eliminating all cormorants from the lake. The biggest reason: money.

In 2001, the association said the cormorants caused $5 million in damage to the Oneida Lake fishery, based on a local industry valued at $11 million a year, Snyder said. Fewer fish meant fewer boat charters, fewer stays at lodges and motels, fewer visits to bait stores and fewer tourists to eat in restaurants.

That same year, a combination of nesting and migrating cormorants ate about 350,000 walleyes and 2 million perch from Oneida Lake, according to the Cornell University Biological Field Station at Shackelton Point.

"The association's point of view is that cormorants would be cheaper to manage if you maintained a population of zero birds," Snyder said.

"But we also recognize nature, and that creatures have a space," he said. "So we modified our position a couple of years ago to allow a limit of 25 nesting pairs, or 50 birds. If you could keep it at that limit, it would not have a detrimental impact."

Now Snyder is willing to see if the proposed compromise of 50 nesting pairs, or 100 cormorants, is too much for Oneida Lake.

Only time will tell if the birds, fish and people will be able to coexist in balance, said Fred Caslick, who represented the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a consultant to the citizens task force.

"This is one of those situations where it's very difficult to find any middle ground on," Caslick said. "Some stakeholder groups value birds, some value birds and fish, some value only fish. And there are some groups that don't believe any living thing should be managed or controlled."

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