To A Cormorant’s Defense

Double-crested Cormorants

Double-crested Cormorants, Cape May, NJ

At the mouth of the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest lies Oregon’s East Sand Island. Closer to Washington State than mainland Oregon, this small atoll is a haven for a variety of resident and migratory birds: cormorants, terns, gulls, pelicans, loons, waterfowl, shorebirds, even several species of raptors—Bald Eagles and Peregrine Falcons among them—rely for some measure of their survival on the island’s scant 50 acres. For some birds it’s a critical resource: the world’s largest colony of Caspian Terns and the largest colony of Double-crested Cormorants in western North America call East Sand Island home.

It’s not hard to see why. The island is a veritable avian Shangri-La, providing ideal, predator-free nesting habitat and ready access to a bountiful supply of fish—something the cormorants, in particular, have taken full advantage of, feasting on young salmon and steelhead as they make their way from freshwater spawning grounds down to the open ocean. This confluence of factors has helped support a healthy and growing population of these spectacular birds, which today numbers around 15,000 breeding pairs. In fact, East Sand Island is the only place along the entire Pacific flyway where Double-crested Cormorant numbers are on the rise.

At least for now. In the very near future, though, the birds may be headed for trouble. Simply by doing what they do naturally—eating fish—they’ve run afoul of the Army Corps of Engineers, with potentially dire consequences. The salmon and steelhead that help sustain the cormorants are endangered, and the Army Corps—under whose responsibility the management of East Sand Island falls—is planning to do something about it.

They’re planning to kill them.

In a brutal and unprecedented act of wildlife control, the Army Corps is poised to destroy 16,000 Double-crested Cormorants—two-thirds of the Sand Island colony, and nearly a third of their entire Western North American population. Corps spokesperson Diana Fredlund justified its approach.

“We were mandated to bring the fish populations… back up because there have been a lot of declines. We’ve got all this money, all this attention to try and increase the survivability of the salmon and they’re going past these islands and all of our good work is going into these birds’ bellies.”

In a statement denouncing the Corps’ plan, Bob Sallinger, conservation director for Audubon’s Portland chapter, had this to say:

“The Corps has already spent tens of millions of dollars trying to manipulate these birds for doing what comes naturally… Now they are proposing lethal control on an historic and horrific scale.”

This isn’t the first time this has come up. In 2012, the Corps, in conjunction with the US Department of Fish & Wildlife, field biologists, and students from Oregon State University, experimented with non-lethal means of control—gradual habitat reduction and hazing (scaring birds off the island before they nest). At the time, both methods met with some success, but this time around, the Corps doesn’t seem to even be considering either technique.

They also don’t appear to be thinking about a long-term solution. Unless they’re prepared to kill every cormorant on the island (or destroy the island itself), like a hydra this issue will keep coming back to bite them: New birds will arrive to fill the void left by the previous victims of the slaughter. It’s a perpetual cycle that will only be broken when people start tackling the real issue—and it has nothing to do with the birds. Do they have an impact? Of course they do. But birds have been eating fish since long before we showed up, and never caused the kind of population crashes we see in fisheries everywhere. The Columbia River’s salmon and steelhead were already struggling to survive, regardless of natural predation. The real issue is why.

In a word: us. The Columbia’s main branch is dammed at 14 points; 400 more dams are scattered throughout the complete river system, which includes the Snake River and more than 60 other major tributaries. In order to breed, both salmon and steelhead must return to the streams in which they hatched. Put a dam or two in the way and you effectively wipe out that river’s entire population: they die before they can breed. Fish ladders can help get the fish upstream, but they’re not foolproof. A dammed river also moves slower than a free-flowing one; for fish heading downstream, this lengthens their journey. A longer trip for a young salmon means more chances to die or be eaten—and that’s exactly what happens, sometimes through a cruel twist of irony. It turns out that some fish do exceedingly well in dammed rivers. The Northern Pikeminnow, for instance, thrives in a dammed river’s slower and warmer waters. And pikeminnow love to snack on young salmon. It was our actions, and not the birds, that put those fish as risk.

Double-crested Cormorants

Double-crested Cormorants, Sherwood Island, CT

But of course, it’s the birds that must suffer for them. At the end of the day, the real issue is this: we’ve lost our respect for nature, for connections and relationships formed over millions of years of evolution. We believe we’re somehow above it, removed from it, insulated from the consequences of our actions because of our vaunted position. We arbitrarily decide which species are good or bad, and eliminate those that don’t serve our needs. We manipulate the Earth to our own ends, ignorant of the damage we do in our passing, and then wonder when the planet’s support systems come crashing down around us. We are not above the animal kingdom—like fish, terns, and cormorants, we are an integral part of it, a piece of a larger system. We are all intimately connected in ways we don’t understand, and any damage to one part affects all. Our survival depends upon the health of the system and all its components; only now are we really beginning to appreciate this.

My hope is that enough people raise their voices against this plan, and in support of the cormorants, to force an alternative solution, and a true examination of the real problem. Perhaps if we all speak up, if we all show that our concerns extend beyond the realm of the human, we can begin to reforge those lost connections, and enter into a new relationship with our world and all its incredible, beautiful, and wondrous creatures. If we can do that, then perhaps there’s hope for us yet.

Perhaps.

We have until August 4 to make our voices heard. Submit a comment to the Army Corps here.

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