Cormorant protection drives fishermen to dispatch pesky birds.

By PAULA PETERS
STAFF WRITER
When Buddy Vanderhoop arrived at the herring run in Aquinnah early last month to find hundreds of cormorants pillaging bait fish, he said he felt something had to be done.

He hurled a stone to scare them, but some of the birds were so bloated with fish they couldn't take flight.

It made him mad. Not only were the birds a threat to the historic herring run - a channel from Menemsha Pond to Squibnocket Pond, where herring have laid their eggs for hundreds of years - but they were jeopardizing his livelihood. Vanderhoop and his brother, Chip, lease the right to gather herring to use as bait and roe from the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, which owns the run and surrounding property.

Each year, the cormorants were taking more fish, said Vanderhoop, who is Aquinnah's assistant shellfish warden.

"At this rate, we won't make enough to pay for our lease on the run," he said later, explaining why he went back to his truck that day, loaded his shotgun, began shooting and didn't stop until a dozen birds were dead and the rest scattered.

Because cormorants are protected under the Migratory Birds Treaty Act, killing them is a federal offense. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it is investigating the incident.

The federally recognized Aquinnah tribe says they have already dealt with the matter, fining Vanderhoop for littering (dead birds and shotgun shells) and prohibiting him from collecting herring for commercial purposes.

Tribal vice chairman Donald Widdiss said while he cannot condone what Vanderhoop did, he agrees the cormorants have become a growing problem over the last two decades.

"They are gluttons, and they change the whole ecosystem," said Widdiss, "but that doesn't mean we can blast them indiscriminately."

Not that people haven't tried. It turns out that sport and commercial fishermen from coast to coast have become fed up with the burgeoning population of cormorants, which have a unique ability to catch fish and as a result, anglers say, are hurting the fishing industry.

As it turns out, Buddy Vanderhoop is not the first, or the worst, cormorant vigilante.

His act pales in comparison to the "massacre at Little Galloo Island" in July 1998, when a group of angry New York fishermen went ashore, killing 850 cormorants.

That left 7,150 unharmed.

In 1998, more than 8,000 cormorants had nested on the 43-acre island in Lake Ontario just outside Henderson Harbor, an upstate New York village whose economy depends on sport fishing.

In 1974, 22 pairs of cormorants had been counted on the island. Gradually, as the colony grew, the nesting area was completely stripped of vegetation. It was covered with so much bird guano, it looked like the back side of the moon.

But there were more than devastating environmental effects. Sport-fishing revenues in the region dropped 18 percent from 1988 to 1996, according to a 2002 Cornell University study. The cormorants were devouring stocked bass faster than anglers could drop a line.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act is unlike an endangered or threatened species designation, which expires when a species recovers. The law - which covers almost every migratory bird, including sea gulls - protects birds for the purpose of managing the species. Under its umbrella are game birds such as ducks and geese, which have specific hunting seasons. (Despite an active campaign by sport and commercial fishermen, there is no open season on cormorants.)

There are six species of cormorants in the United States - all are protected as migratory birds. The birds shot on Little Galloo Island and by Vanderhoop were double-crested cormorants, named for a double cowlick of feathers on their heads.

The long slender bird's dark plume has a greenish gloss, with orange extending down its face to the neck and a small pouch.

Other water fowl share similar features, such as the long neck and webbed feet, but what sets the cormorant apart is a lack of waterproofing oil on its feathers and a uniquely hooked beak. While birds such as ducks and swans stay buoyant because of that oil, cormorants are able to dive deep and fast, extending their necks to snatch fish in their beak.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says cormorants eat about a pound of small fish a day, though most anglers say the number is much higher.

Thurman Booth, director of the U.S. Agriculture Department's wildlife services in Arkansas, was quoted in the Delta Farm Press in March 2002 saying that cormorants in his state dine at catfish farms year-round, "costing Arkansas fish farmers between $2 million and $3 million annually."

Cormorants are so skilled at catching fish, for centuries they have been captured and trained in China to do the work of a rod and reel. A ring is attached to the bird's neck. The cormorant is tossed out over the water with a tether, then hauled back in when it makes a catch. The ring prevents the bird from swallowing the fish, which is, instead, delivered to the fisherman.

In the 1950s and 1960s, cormorants were struggling to breed as a result of the toxic insecticide DDT, which thinned their eggs. It was a temporary setback. After DDT was banned in 1973, "cormorants' reproductive rate skyrocketed," Booth said.

In 1972, cormorants were swept under the wings of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which bans their killing, capture or harassment.

The protection has worked well.

Cormorant nests increased an average of 29 percent every year in the 1970s and 1980s in the Great Lakes area alone, according to Fish and Wildlife biologists' estimates. Current estimates peg the North American population at more than 2 million birds.

Fish and Wildlife biologist John Trapp said while that may sound dramatic, the base population of the birds was low to begin with. He said the rate of increase is now about 5 to 7 percent a year.

In comparison, Trapp said, the mute swan is increasing at more than 9 percent a year, the population doubling every eight years. There are now about 14,000 in the northeastern United States. And they are not without their detractors: Mute swans have caused problems in some coastal communities where they eat underwater vegetation at the rate of 8 pounds a day, destroying habitats for crabs and fish.

Indigenous to China and the west coast of North America from Southwest Alaska to Mexico, cormorants migrated through the interior of North America in the early 1900s, taking a liking to the Great Lakes in the summer and the Gulf of Mexico in the winter.

By the 1980s, they were being spotted on the Cape and islands.

In 1982, Gus Ben David, director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, noted four pairs had arrived on Sarson's Island in Sengekontacket Pond just off the sanctuary.

This year, there are close to 350 pairs.

"That is just incredible growth," Ben David said.

Just east of Aquinnah, he said, at least 650 nesting pairs live on Nomans Island.

But they are not just island visitors, they also enjoy the Cape.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a growing flock of cormorants began making its way to Orleans every spring. The first sign of trouble was the thick vegetation growing in Cedar Pond across from the home of Sherrill Smith.

"The pond went into bloom from all the bird droppings. It was an awful smell," said Smith. "The pond went crazy with vegetation so you couldn't even get your oars in the water."

Smith and members of the Orleans Police Department began a decade-long effort to persuade the birds to summer elsewhere.

Numerous meetings were held where residents rejected costly solutions, such as burying the power lines where the birds hung out, or putting foam tubing on the lines to deter the birds from landing.

Instead, every year the birds returned to blasts and explosions generated by devices similar to those used to produce fire works. The noise succeeded in scaring the birds off, ultimately reducing the flock to a "gang of five," as Smith calls them.

The pond, he said, "has cleared up considerably."

It was by the way, a deterrent attempted by Vanderhoop, however herring run neighbors complained about the noise.

What exactly makes the cormorant so unloved? Why doesn't its image adorn key chains and note cards?

There's the fishing thing, of course. And, as residents around Cedar Pond in Orleans would attest, the matter of the bird droppings. In the Great Lakes, cormorant droppings have been found to contain toxic chemicals including PCBs, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

But the cormorant's lack of champions also may be due to other, more subtle reasons.

For starters, they aren't the most attractive birds, Trapp said.

"Cormorants are kind of ugly," he said. "A fisherman out on the water who hasn't caught a fish all day, and sees a cormorant with a fish in his mouth, sees an ugly bird with a fish he could have caught."

Simon Perkins, field ornithologist with the Massachusetts Audubon Society, has another theory. He thinks their image suffers partly because of their color.

"Well," said Perkins, "I don't know if I should go there, but historically black birds are more commonly reviled than white birds."

He may have a point. After all, sea gulls, scavengers of the air, are seen as beautiful; and swans, which have actually been known to attack people, are portrayed as graceful. Even pigeons, when they are albino, or doves, are associated with peace. Such distinctions about black and white go way back, to a time when dark night held particularly scary possibilities.

"Black is associated with evil," said Perkins. "Cormorants have always gotten a bad rap, just like the crow and the raven."

He also said the warble of a cormorant is not as melodious as that of other birds.

But surely they have some redeeming qualities?

"Every living thing has some sort of intrinsic value," Perkins said, struggling momentarily to name the cormorant's.

"The bird is a superb swimmer," he said finally. "And extremely good at catching fish."

Perhaps the cormorant is just too good at what it does. This presents something of a dilemma for the Fish and Wildlife Service, which is regularly lobbied to do something about the bird. Nearly 400 supporters have signed an online petition started by a group of California anglers to force the service to reduce that state's cormorant population.

In Henderson Harbor, N.Y., fishermen, charter captains and bait shop owners had lobbied the service for relief from the cormorants, but they were frustrated by the inaction. Then, as now, the only way to get rid of cormorants is to apply for a "depredation permit" from the service.

To get one, an individual, state or local agency must apply to the regional Fish and Wildlife office, which must agree that a species has become a predator to the detriment of the ecosystem's balance, the environment, or is having a negative impact on the health and safety of people living in the area.

After the incident at Little Galloo Island, a pair of congressmen, Reps. John McHugh of New York and Collin Peterson of Minnesota, recognized a need to address the problem.

In 1999, they introduced a bill to establish a cormorant hunting season.

McHugh was critical of the Fish and Wildlife Service's failure to address adequately what he called a "cormorant crisis."

Dana Johnson, McHugh's deputy chief of staff, said the congressman did not condone the incident at Little Galloo, but felt the Fish and Wildlife folks needed to be sent a clear message.

"It was a shot across the bow," Johnson said.

The bill was allowed to expire as Fish and Wildlife began holding public hearings across the country. Last month, the comment period closed on a new rule that would allow state wildlife agencies to issue permits to kill or spoil the eggs of cormorants without consulting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It's not quite what the anglers were hoping for, but the rule at least would bring the bureaucracy closer to home.

Under the new rule, states, Indian tribes and the Department of Agriculture could issue "public resource depredation orders," allowing cormorants to be killed or their eggs spoiled when they are judged to be damaging natural resources.

The rule would be limited to 24 states. Massachusetts is not among them.

"We did this in response to complaints," Trapp explained. "The New England states did not come out as a major problem. It's just a matter of how big an issue it is, and how much public outcry."

He said those who feel the birds are out of control here can apply for a depredation permit, for a specific location and time period, authorizing a limited number of kills.

Vanderhoop had applied for such a permit, but his application was denied.

Last month, Brett Stern, natural resource director for the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe, said he applied for the permit after the May 3 herring run shootings. Stern, who investigated the incident, said he agrees with Vanderhoop that the cormorants are bad news for the herring fishery. He also said he suspects they are responsible for the depletion of the white perch population in Squibnocket Pond.

But, he said, Vanderhoop was penalized.

As far as the tribe is concerned, the case of the cormorant shootings is closed. Tribal chairwoman Beverly Wright and vice chairman Widdiss agree tribal sovereignty gives them jurisdiction over the issue, even though Fish and Wildlife officials claim an investigation is ongoing.

Tribal natural resource ranger Jeff Day said the law may contradict the tribal leaders. It is still possible Vanderhoop could face federal charges, he said.

"We have a concurrent jurisdiction over these issues," Day said. "A person can actually get charged in both venues, and it's not considered double jeopardy." But Widdiss said appropriate action that mirrors what the federal government might have done has already been taken.

Even though Massachusetts is not among those listed in the new Fish and Wildlife ruling, the tribe's sovereignty gives them the right to address cormorant depredation on their own, he added.

Those involved in the shoot-out at Little Galloo were hunted down by as environmental terrorists and arrested; but they were hailed as heroes in their fishing village. Three men were sentenced to house arrest and fined up to $2,500, but a defense fund was quickly raised. Hats and T-shirts sold to benefit the outlaws are still sold as souvenirs.

Ben David, director of the Felix Neck Sanctuary on the Vineyard, said he thinks Vanderhoop's decision to shoot the cormorants was bad judgment, but he understands what drove him to it.

"The man is trying to make a living and the cormorants in that case, they can be a threat to his livelihood. You have to be sensitive to Buddy's situation."

Still, he said, "you can't manage wildlife with emotion." Nature, he said, should take its course.

"The population of certain species sometimes will build up dramatically, then something strikes. The sheer numbers will stress them to a degree, then a pathogen enters the system and it will decimate that population and put it back into proportion with their habitat," Ben David said.

For example, Ben David said, some years back the population of New England harbor seals swelled until a virus spread, restoring them to a proportion relative to their environment. Wildlife population dynamics are never static, he said.

"If there were a graph of wildlife population, it would go up and down. Nature is a dynamic system that is very complex. We have to be careful that we don't make a judgment too soon and cause more harm than good."

(Published: June 15, 2003)