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By Gilbert Ngabo
Ontario is launching a battle against one of the predators preying on fish and damaging trees.
A Friday announcement from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry shows a plan to allow a fall hunting of the cormorants — a double-crested bird said to be harmful to natural habitat and fish stocks.
The hunting season will run between Sept. 15 and Dec. 31 starting this year, the ministry said. Each hunter will be allowed to kill a maximum of 15 cormorants per day.
“We’ve heard concerns from property owners, hunters and anglers, and commercial fishers about the kind of damage cormorants have caused in their communities, so we’re taking steps to help them deal with any local issues,” John Yakabuski, minister for natural resources and forestry, said in a news release.
According to the ministry, cormorants are dangerous because their droppings can kill trees and other vegetation, thus depriving safe nesting habitats for other colonial waterbirds. A cormorant can eat up to one pound of fish a day, according to the statement.
Back in 2018, Ontario government floated the idea of having an open season for the hunting of cormorants, suggesting the hunt to be permitted between March and December and allowing a hunter to take up to 50 cormorants.
The current limitations stem from public consultations with property owners, hunters and anglers, as well as commercial fishers.
The ministry says Ontario is home to at least 143,000 breeding cormorants in 344 colonies. According to surveys from the ministry, cormorant populations seem to be on an increase in Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and Lake Superior, while the numbers stay steady in Lake Huron and St. Lawrence River.
“We listened to those who provided comments about the cormorant hunting proposal, and as a result, we are introducing only a fall hunting season to avoid interfering with recreational users of waterways and nesting periods for some migratory birds,” Yakabuski said.
Gail Fraser, a York University biology professor who has studied cormorants, said the hunt is not necessary and the government’s latest move is just “a political manoeuvre” to appeal to its base, as opposed to being science-based.
“I am seriously concerned that they’re just going to remove cormorants from Ontario,” she told the Star.
Fraser was one of over 3,000 people who submitted comments on the initial proposal for a hunt. She said there’s an estimated 700,000 hunters in Ontario, and if one-quarter of these hunters kill one cormorant during that 90-day hunting season, that will translate into over 120 per cent above the estimated cormorant breeding population.
The government has spent a lot of money in the past in an effort to re-grow the cormorant population in the early 1970s while it faced extinction, Fraser said. Instead of hunting them now, the ministry should be assessing localized human-wildlife conflicts before undertaking actions to specifically address that, she said.
According to Fraser, it’s not fair to simply say cormorants kill trees, because they are not nesting in every possible tree across the Great Lakes region. In addition, there are other predators eating fish, including humans, so there’s no proof that cormorants are the biggest culprits.
“Saying that controlling cormorants is going to be the magic pill to having healthy fish populations is just not good science,” Fraser said.