To hunt or not to hunt: Avian flu leads to duck hunters' dilemma

Waterfowlers may have avian flu to deal with this season, but many are still planning to hunt.

Waterfowlers have avian flu to deal with this season, but many still plan to hunt

A flock of eiders fly past an iceberg.
Eider ducks and icebergs are pictured off Cape Race on Newfoundland’s southern shore. (Submitted by Cliff Doran)

This column is an opinion by Gord Follett, former editor of Newfoundland Sportsman. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Not by any stretch of the imagination do I consider myself an avid waterfowler. Even "fairly serious" would be pushing  it.

Since my last goose and duck hunt in Prince Edward Island about eight years ago, waterfowling has been more of an incidental hunt for me, meaning I was after other small game such as rabbits or grouse and happened upon a few freshwater ducks or couple geese in a pond or gully. It's also been about that long since I've ridden the Atlantic Ocean hunting eider ducks and turrs.

Over the past couple of months, however, I've been thinking about duck hunting quite a bit — specifically about what some of my die-hard duck hunting buddies and waterfowlers in general across Newfoundland and Labrador are going to do, now that avian influenza has become so rampant in these parts. Even though it happens rarely, it can still pose a serious health risk to humans.

There certainly is a dilemma for us this year- Peter Emberley, hunter

Thousands of seabirds such as common murres (also known as turrs), gulls and gannets have been washing up along our coasts this summer; some already dead, others on shorelines, dying slow deaths that have been heart-wrenching to watch. Some freshwater birds have also tested positive for the virus.

Local waterfowlers, perhaps the most passionate group of hunters out there, appear to be facing quite a dilemma this year: will they still hunt?

If so, will they consume the birds they kill? Aren't they concerned for their own health?

I've spoken to numerous duck hunters in recent weeks, and while I wasn't completely shocked, I was somewhat surprised to discover that most of them — almost 75 per cent of the 90-plus I've contacted around the province as part of my mini-survey — have every intention of continuing with their favourite hunt again this year. (The season for freshwater ducks and geese begins Sept. 17, while startup dates for eider ducks and other seabirds are usually in October and November, depending on hunting zones.)

Two men dressed in camouflage hunting gear stand in the woods behind a camouflage-patterned inflatable raft, on which nine dead ducks are spread.
Peter Emberley Sr., right, and his son Peter Emberley Jr. display the results of a morning duck hunt on the Avalon Peninsula. (Submitted by Peter Emberley)

To hunt or not to hunt

"There certainly is a dilemma for us this year," admitted Peter Emberley of St. John's.

"The day before duck season is usually known to us as 'Ducks Eve,' just like Christmas Eve for the kids. It's all we talk about. We breathe, sleep and dream about ducks and we break out the duck calls and start practising couple weeks before it opens. This year, however, that feeling is tarnished with the bird flu.

"It's not the first time we've been warned, but this is the first time dead birds have been seen around the coastal waters all over the island. Plenty of hunters are of two minds on whether to hunt. I've heard some say they will hunt opening day but will not consume the birds. For me, that's not an option. If I hunt, I can't waste the bird. It goes against everything I believe in. If I don't [plan to] eat it, I don't shoot it."

It was only within the past couple of weeks that Emberley made the decision to hunt this year, though he will take precautions.

"This disease seems to affect the birds more so in coastal waters than our local ponds, lakes and gullies," he said. That's not to say it's not inland as well, he added.

"I invested in a picker that isn't made of wood, so it can be thoroughly disinfected after each use. The birds will have to be handled with extra care once the processing begins and again when it's time to cook them. We will pick up some aprons and long gloves when we handle the birds, just to be safe."

Two brown ducks swim on water.
Waterfowl across Newfoundland, including ducks at Quidi Vidi Lake, have tested positive for the bird flu. (Submitted by Gord Follett)

Season uncertainty

Avid seabird hunter Blake Russell of Lewisporte, who is currently aboard a tanker in the Arctic on a work term, will be cruising the Atlantic in search of ducks and turrs again this coming season — if there is an open season for turrs, and indications as I write this point to a season closure.

"Most turrs and ducks we kill are coming from the north; seems like most of the sick turrs on the northeast coast are from the Funks [Funk Islands]," Russell said.

"We usually wait for the northern turrs anyway, which come later … and I have seen no sign of sick eiders or turrs up here in Hudson Bay and Baffin area. If I were home, I'd be hunting turrs this year, but we'd just be a bit more cautious, I guess. But I'll definitely be hunting eiders when I'm off this winter."

Rob Stringer of Caplin Cove, Trinity Bay, was looking forward to the coming season, just as he always does, but says his goose gun and trusty yellow Lab Molly won't be seeing much action in 2022.

"I just can't take a chance with this bird flu," he said, adding that at least five of his Voisey's Bay co-workers feel the same way.

On Newfoundland's southwest coast, Mark Lomond, administrator of the Facebook group Duck Hunters of Newfoundland, said he will "most certainly" be hunting ducks this year.

"All my buddies are saying the same thing," he added.

While this strain of H5N1 is more widespread this year, he said, "it has always been present to some extent in our local bird populations."

Lomond's main concern right now isn't his own health but that of his chickens, he said, as he has a small hobby farm and this strain of avian influenza is deadly to poultry. Other than taking several precautions to protect them, he said, "everything else will be status quo" with regard to his hunting habits.

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Gord Follett

Freelance contributor

Gord Follett is a former editor of the Newfoundland Sportsman magazine, former co-host of the Newfoundland Sportsman TV program and best-selling author of Track Shoes & Shotguns. He lives in Mount Pearl.