Fishermen in northern Michigan say the federal government is doing nothing while double-crested cormorants eat up fish the anglers would like to catch. For more than a decade, the government used lethal force to keep cormorant numbers down.
A lawsuit ended that and now the birds are showing signs of rebounding in places they are not welcome.
Scaring birds away
Ed Retherford is standing next to the Thunder Bay River in Alpena. He’s watching double-crested cormorants appear in the sky.
"Another one coming," he says. "Now they know."
What they know is the truck behind us is pumping young Atlantic salmon into the river. 22,000 fish raised in a state hatchery.
Retherford runs a team of volunteers here to keep the birds from eating the five-inch salmon.
“We’ll have guys here for the next three days; we’ll probably put like 20 hours in. We just rotate,” he explains.
There’s not much to do today. Boats are fishing for walleye in the river and that keeps the birds away.
If they come in, all the volunteers can do is harass them with pyrotechnics, shot from a small orange gun Ed Retherford is holding. In the past they could shoot cormorants with a real gun, which he says was more effective.
“They come back all the time with pyros. With shooting them, eventually you won’t see them. They get smart enough they won’t come in," he says.
Guns were allowed under an order from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But a judge stopped the program two years ago. He said Fish and Wildlife could not prove it needed to keep killing the migratory birds. And that stunned people in coastal communities up north, places where fish attract tourists.
In northern lakes Huron and Michigan, volunteers have helped government agencies reduce the number of nesting birds by more than two-thirds. In addition to shooting them, they oil eggs to keep them from hatching.
Neither of these control methods are allowed since the court ruling.
People who packed a meeting hall in Cedarville, east of the Mackinac Straits, last week want lethal control used again.
Ron Frazier was a commercial fisherman in Lake Michigan. He says before cormorant control, he’d see colonies with thousands of birds.
“They eat a pound apiece a day. You put that down on paper and pencil and see how many fish that is. You’ll see where your fish went," he says.
During the meeting, Frazier told the crowd he’s seeing colonies like the old days.
“If something isn’t done in two years, we’re going to be right back in the same situation and if it happens, I’m too old. I’ll never get fish again,” said Frazier.
Not everyone agrees the sky is falling.
Jim Ludwig is an ornithologist who has studied Great Lakes birds for decades. He helped sue U.S. Fish and Wildlife to stop killing cormorants.
Ludwig says the birds are unfairly blamed for problems with fish when the causes are complicated, and he says it’s unlikely the cormorant population will reach the high levels seen 15 years ago.
For one thing, he says there are too many bald eagles eating them now. He was on an island in northern Lake Michigan last year that cormorants couldn’t nest on because of eagles.
“They all moved over to Gull Island; tried to re-nest. I was there August 3, and there were nine eagles sitting in trees in that island picking off cormorants one after another,” says Ludwig.
It might be up to the eagles to keep cormorant numbers down for a while.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is starting to gather information about the issue, and U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Mich., has introduced legislation he says will bring back lethal control immediately. But nothing seems to be moving quickly.
So this year, cormorants will be free to nest across the Great Lakes.