Biologists reject ongoing cormorant hunting as local population appears to be declining

A cormorant colony in eastern Ontario is dwindling, and a retired bird-watching biologist says Ontario cormorant hunting has left the colony on the brink of survival.

In his volunteer role for the Big Rideau Lake Association, Buzz Boles has charted the disappearance of cormorant nests and a decline in lake residents since 2015.

Boles said waterfowl numbers have fallen from a peak of about 90 birds in 2015 to 43 in his last count in July.

Boles said cormorant populations across the province are suffering from a avian viral infection called Newcastle disease, and cormorant hunting across the county is endangering already scaled-down colonies, such as those on Big Rideau Lake.

“My expectation is that the population will continue to decline,” he said. “And in time this historic colony will be gone.”

Buzz Boles Cormorants Big Rideau Lake
Boles believes Ontario’s annual cormorant hunts are the result of lobbying by fishing and hunting groups, not evidence-based resource management. (Ben Andrews/CBC News)

In July 2020, Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry announced the controversial hunt, which allows hunters with an outdoor card and a small game permit to kill up to 15 birds per day from September 15 to December 31.

Because cormorant meat tastes unpleasant, the government has changed existing rules to allow hunters to dump their catch or bury it in their backyard.

But Boles said he’s noticed that hunters aren’t clearing all bird carcasses from Big Rideau Lake.

“They have violated the fundamental rule of hunting, which is to say, if you kill it, you eat it,” he said.

Buzz Boles Cormorants Shotgun Shells
Boles found empty shells and five dead cormorants left behind on an island in Big Rideau Lake in late October 2021. (Ben Andrews/CBC News)

Fish a bad excuse to ‘destroy’ birds: expert

Last year, Boles joined a long list of experts who argued that the hunt is not based on science, but is the result of relentless lobbying by hunting and fishing groups.

Dozens of experts signed an open letter to the government, arguing that the province should instead pursue “targeted, localized management.”

Steven Cooke, a professor of environmental science at Carleton University and a signatory to the open letter, said the county often sees hunting as a way to protect fish from cormorants. While the situation for Ontario’s fish population is not “rosy,” the people — not the cormorants — are to blame.

“It’s disturbing when fish are used as a justification for trying to wipe out bird populations,” he said.

Hunting improves social tolerance, federation says

CBC contacted the Department of Natural Resources and Forestry for a response to concerns about the ongoing hunt but was told no one was available for an interview.

Hunters have argued that the cormorant population is still abundant.

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters lobbied the Ontario government to allay concerns over bird numbers, said Lauren Tonelli, a resource management specialist with the federation.

She said the federation pushed for active management of the cormorant population and later had mixed feelings when the province proposed a general hunting season.

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A close-up of a double-crested cormorant in a tree in Florida. Cormorants are often blamed for killing vegetation because their feces are toxic, destroying traditional nesting habitats for other shorebirds and depleting game fish stocks. (Rhona Wise/AFP via Getty Images)

Tonelli said the benefit of the hunt comes down to promoting social tolerance.

“A lot of people have seen how cormorants cause these kinds of dead islands … and it’s created a very negative view of cormorants,” she said. “The ability to feel like they can do something to reduce this abundance that we’re seeing really helps, I think [hunters] feel like something is being done.”

Tonelli said the federation’s biggest concern isn’t cormorant populations on large bodies of water, but inland fisheries on smaller lakes, such as Big Rideau Lake.

Still, Boles said the birds have long been present on small lakes in the province.

“I see a lot of people taking their kids in boats… right near the colony,” he said.

“It’s a great way to teach young people about ecology and animal species. Instead, the government has decided we’re going to shoot them.”

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