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Monday, July 25, 2005


Depredation of species that get in our way

NEW YORK -- "Protected Birds Are Back, With a Vengeance: Cormorants Take Over, Making Some Enemies." This headline in the New York Times earlier this month, inset in a photo showing a few black birds atop a tree, struck me with the thought: So it has come to pass. Hadn't the same daily some years back carried a story very different in content and tone, which nonetheless portended this outcome?

It indeed had, seven years ago, as I quickly confirmed. With the headline "A Slaughter of Cormorants in Angler Country," the Aug. 1, 1998, story had told the reader of a "massacre" of double-crested cormorants on the uninhabited Little Galloo Island on Lake Ontario, which "left 840 birds dead and more than 100 others injured [and] transformed the local issue into an extraordinary environmental crime."

As the newsletter "The Federal Wildlife Officer" put it one summer later, "the shotgun slayings," which were the result of the conflict between local fishermen and the birds, "are considered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to be one of the largest mass killings ever of a species protected by federal laws."

The 1998 article came with a photo of a few dead cormorants lying on the wet, foggy ground, as I remember vaguely. The report, by Andrew Revkin, quoted Clifford Schneider, who worked for the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation: "You see a young chick still laying there alive among all the others that had been wiped out, and you can't help but be moved emotionally." It appropriately ended with David J. Miller calling for "a swift investigation and aggressive prosecution of the shooter or shooters." Miller, the head of the National Audubon Society's New York state chapter, said, "The message has to be strong that people really can't take the law into their own hands."

It took eight months, until April 1999, for nine perpetrators of the killing to plead guilty.

Cormorants are migratory and are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA), originally of 1918. But they did not come under special protection until 1972, when they were added to the list of birds whose "killing and harassment during their annual cycle" was prohibited, says a 2001 report prepared for the USFWS, "Status of the Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) in North America." The MBTA lists six subspecies of the cormorant: Grant's, double-crested, great, neotropic or olivaceous, pelagic and red-faced.

1972 also saw a ban of DDT and a regulatory reduction of other pesticides. DDT and other toxic chemicals had drastically reduced the number of double-crested cormorants by 1970. Population increases since then have been contrastingly spectacular. The "massacre" occurred in the midst of that recovery. This largely explains why Lisa Foderaro, writing "Protected Birds Are Back, With a Vengeance" a few weeks ago, did so as though cormorants are now the enemies not just for some people, such as fishermen, but for the reporter herself.

Just a year after the arrest of the nine men, Foderaro writes, the USFWS acceded to "complaints from fish farmers, anglers, landowners and biologists" and effected a "depredation order." What does "depredation" consist of? According to a March-May 2004 "statement of findings" by the New York State Division of Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources, it includes "egg-oiling, nest destruction, hazing, habitat modification, exclusion techniques, and limited lethal removal of birds." As a result of that order and another one that "authorizes shooting at farms and nearby roosting sites," in 2004 alone a total of 21,000 cormorants were killed nationwide. But the problem remains, both locally and nationally, according to Foderaro. And she doesn't like what she sees on Lake Champlain's Four Brothers Islands.

"The double-crested cormorants perch like conquerors at the top of the spindly white pines, their driftwood-gray branches devoid of needles," Foderaro opens her story. "The trees were killed off, along with much of the other vegetation . . . by the birds' highly acidic droppings." Killing of cormorants on the small cluster of islets, which are located toward the southern end of the lake between New York and Vermont, has yet to begin; the Nature Conservancy's Adirondack chapter, which owns them, has declined to give permission to "manage" the birds.

The result violates Foderaro's sense of what "birds" should be like, her notion of their place on this planet. Four Brothers Islands "constitute a strange sanctuary," she says, "a smelly, noisy, barren landscape, seemingly plucked from a Hitchcock film," where "the ubiquitous black birds can be seen stretching out their wings Dracula style to dry their feathers."

Dracula style! But, darling, cormorants can't help that!

Seriously, Foderaro's "strange sanctuary" reminds me of what I should have said upfront: I am an armchair nature lover. In Sunset Beach, North Carolina, where my wife and I vacation every summer, I kayak in the marsh. There, when the tide goes out a sand bar emerges and collects a gaggle of waterfowl-pelicans, oyster catchers, skimmers, royal terns and curlews. Not a whole lot of them -- the resort is too developed for that -- but enough to give off a stiff whiff of odor as you slide toward it.

That delights me, real nature! But could I live right next to such a sand bar, let alone a colony of cormorants, all year round? I doubt it.

And yet, and yet. What has happened to cormorants is yet another story of humans overpowering animals whenever they see them getting in their way. Neither the population size of a particular animal nor what the animal does (more often, does not do) matters. One estimate puts the number of double-crested cormorants in North America at 2 million, less than a quarter of the number of humans in New York City. On Lake Champlain there are two nesting sites for the birds: 2.43-hectare Young Island and 7.28-hectare Four Brothers Islands, a total of 9.71 hectares, or one-tenth of a square kilometer. And though the "management" of the bigger space is on hold, Vermont has been "aggressively" practicing "depredation" on the smaller one. Why can't we leave both places alone?

As to fishermen's claim that cormorants are depleting certain fish stock, it remains unproven. That is why the Canadian government objected, at least initially, to the USFWS's "depredation order." But Canada, too, has buckled under pressure. For a few years now it has been killing sizable numbers of cormorants to see whether their varying population sizes affect fish populations. Animals don't have a chance.

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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