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Piranha bird is big art of recipe for disaster

Cormorants remain major fish threat

October 2, 2009
By Tim Kobasic

ESCANABA - Measures to protect spawning fish stocks and enhance control of the burgeoning population of cormorants is set to kick off in the spring of 2010.

Although long overdue, it is at least a sign that the impact these protected birds are having on the fishery of the western Upper Peninsula is cause for the liberalization of lethal control methods and quotas.

In 1972, following a sharp decline of the cormorant in part from the use of DDT (a chemical used in quantity to control insects and diseases of crops grown in agricultural plots), the US Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) placed the bird as endangered under the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918.

DDT was banned the same year and combined with other environmental clean-up, resulted in the return of cormorant populations that today far exceed expectations.

In 1970 there were only 70 nesting pairs of cormorants in Michigan. By 2008, estimates revealed there were approximately 3 million cormorants in the US, 78 percent of them around Lake Michigan during the summer months. That's 2.34 million folks.

Taking just half of that census as the adult population and incorporating the 1.5 pound daily individual fish consumption, that equates to about 1.8 million pounds of fish taken each day by cormorants, especially during spring spawning season.

The probable reductions on future forge-based fish populations is significant.

Now add to that the impact of invasive aquatic species like the zebra mussel, Eurasian milfoil, rusty crayfish, goby, etc., competing for habitat and forever changing the ecosystem of the Great Lakes. Couple it to mother nature's decision to reduce lake levels. Then toss in a sprinkle of illegal commercial fishing and you have a perfect recipe for disaster.

Conservation organizations across the U.P. have worked for decades to enhance the fishery on both lakes and inland waters.

They have served as volunteers collecting eggs, supporting the cost of raising native stock for re-introduction in area waters to at least maintain a base population of fish, only to see their efforts dashed as cormorants move into planting areas.

Those who regularly participate in some use of Michigan lakes and streams are fully aware of the dilemma faced by natural resources managers in maintaining a decent fishery.

At times it appears they are doing so against insurmountable odds.

It has been difficult to impress the 85 percent of Michigan's citizens, who do not have keen interest in the state's fishery as to the major impact these birds are having here.

There are some groups who, like HSUS and the Defenders of Wildlife, are trying to work off of emotion to contend there is no need to enact control measures.

Perhaps conservationists would have better success if the cormorant were more aptly renamed a "piranha bird" because that is what they have turned out to be. They are opportunistic feeders that leave no fish species untouched.

It is also important to mention the environmental impact of the cormorant. Not many people realize their caustic feces droppings obliterate foliage throughout their nesting sites, causing extensive run-off into the lake basin.

That created infestation of ecoli-bacteria that was cause for the closure of many beaches along the eastern shores of Lake Michigan last year.

Now, there is evidence that current lethal control measures are not doing enough to curb the prolific cormorant as populations continue to grow. The data has convinced the USFWS to expand efforts and broaden control areas including the western UP.

Dave Westerberg of Escanaba, representing the Bay deNoc Great Lakes Sport Fishermen and U.P. Sportsmen's Alliance, is but one of many volunteer conservationists appointed to a task force by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to establish cormorant management recommendations.

The lethal control program previously utilized in the eastern U.P. for several years have shown success.

Here volunteers have attended required training sessions and upon completion been sanctioned and deputized as designated shooters to cover specific areas in need of control.

They have also performed field necropsy on a percentage of birds taken to determine feed sources. This program will expand into the western UP in the spring of 2010.

Westerberg has been appointed to coordinate conservation organizations and individuals wanting to participate as volunteers for the region.

His goal is to compile a list by the end of November so that logistics can be worked out with training completed in time for the spring migration when most of the cormorant feeding frenzy takes place. Other control measures, such as egg oiling, will also continue during the main nesting season of cormorants in the western area.

If you want to become a volunteer participant in the western U.P. cormorant control program or have any questions, contact Westerberg at P.O. Box 146, Escanaba, 49829, e-mail to, or by phone (906-786-3950).

The group is also seeking financial sponsorship to cover the cost of fuel, ammunition and other essential needs.


Tim Kobasic is the outdoors editor for KMB Broadcasting and host/producer for Tails & Trails Outdoor Radio, aired on six radio stations over three networks, Charter Communications cable and the Internet on Saturday mornings.



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