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Great Lakes Article:

Cormorant controls a concern for some
By Peter Rebhahn
Green Bay Press Gazette

The double-crested cormorants that call the bay of Green Bay home six months out of every year are now kicking up their heels in the warmth and sunshine of the southern U.S. coast.

But, come spring, they’ll be back, and they’ll bring their fish-eating natures with them.

"We have way too much of a good thing," said Mark Maricque, the biggest of the 17 commercial fishermen awarded yellow perch harvest quotas by the state Department of Natural Resources for the 2002-03 season.

"In the minds of commercial fishermen and, I think, most of your organized sport fishermen, without a doubt the cormorants are having an impact on yellow perch."

According to the latest reliable estimate there are around 8,000 nesting cormorant pairs, plus or minus 20 percent, in the bay and nearby Lake Michigan waters - far more than the 50 nesting pairs biologists counted in the 1970s, when the bird appeared on Wisconsin’s Endangered Species List.

Yellow perch numbers, on the other hand, have spiked and plummeted in the past 30 years, but the overall trend has been downward, raising speculation that the fish-eating cormorant may be the reason.

Last month the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made final a ruling two years in the making that allows Wisconsin and 23 other states to use lethal force to control cormorant populations where necessary.

The ruling means states no longer need federal permits to kill cormorants, whose management is under jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

But Wisconsin has no plans to move willy-nilly into lethal cormorant control next spring, and may never take that step.

"We’ll have to work through some kind of process," said Bill Horns, the DNR’s Great Lakes fisheries coordinator. "That will entail some significant costs we can’t really afford right now."

The problem, said Horns, is that there’s no sound evidence that cormorants are behind the precipitous drop in yellow perch numbers recorded by DNR biologists since the late 1990s, and getting the proof would require studies the cash-strapped state agency can’t afford.

Bill Willis, president of the 200-member Green Bay Area Great Lakes Sport Fishermen and an advocate of cormorant controls, thinks Wisconsin and other states got a raw deal from the federal government.

"Basically, they’ve washed their hands of the problem," Willis said

Fish & Wildlife 'dragged its feet' on the control issue allowing the problem to worsen, Willis said, then dumped the problem into the states’ lap.

"It’s not going to cost them (the federal government) money now," Willis said. "They’re going to put the problem on the states, and we’re already strapped the way it is."

Green Bay-based Fish & Wildlife biologist Ken Stromborg is in the third year of a long-term study aimed at determining how well the bay’s cormorants are surviving year-to-year - a piece of information he said is vital to any decision to kill cormorants.

"I’m a wildlife manager, and I don’t have an objection to a well-reasoned and scientifically based management plan," Stromborg said. "That doesn’t bother me at all. What bothers me are knee-jerk reactions that aren’t based on solid informational footing."

Fishermen like Maricque and Willis have heard the charge before that their calls for cormorant control are based on anecdotal stories of cormorants gorging on perch that lack scientific certainty.

Willis pleads guilty to not being a scientist, but said he and others in the group he leads only need common sense to understand the problem.

"They’re not particular what kind of fish they eat," Willis said. "If the yellow perch are there, cormorants are going to eat the perch."

And so they do, Stromborg said. But he said there’s a big information gap between the angry observations of disappointed fishermen and good scientific evidence.

"It’s clear that cormorants did not cause the perch problem," Stromborg said. "That should never have been on the table. I understand that it is, and I understand why. But there are no data to support it."

Ornithologist Tom Erdman, curator of the Richter Museum of Natural History at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and a keen observer of the cormorant issue, said that there’s better evidence that big catches by ice fishermen in the 1990s created today’s perch shortage.

But Erdman said the biggest cause for declining perch numbers is probably changes in the bay, where invading nonnative species have upset the ecological balance by interfering with millennia-old predator-prey relationships.

"There’s a lot of things that have happened in the bay of Green Bay since the good old days," Erdman said.

It’s unlikely that Wisconsin will put together a cormorant control plan for 2004, Horns said. "But I’d never want to say never," he added.

Horns said if the state does enact controls, the method of choice is likely to be egg-oiling, not shotguns. Environmentally safe cooking oil sprayed onto eggs plugs the microscopic holes bird embryos need to breathe, killing them.

Willis said his group has offered to help the DNR to lessen the hit on taxpayers’ wallets. "I wouldn’t have any problems getting volunteers, and I’ve even offered to pay for the oil," Willis said.

More volunteers might come from the ranks of commercial fishermen, whose near-unanimous attitude toward the need for cormorant controls Maricque condensed into a few words.

"The time has come and gone," Maricque said.

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