Proposed cormorant limit is 100,
to save fishing
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."