Nfld. & Labrador·Opinion

Not a pretty picture: Why N.L. needs to allow limited hunting for cormorants

Outdoors enthusiasts around Newfoundland have been talking about what seems to be an increase in cormorants, which some believe can hurt freshwater fish stocks. Gord Follett says N.L. should look to Ontario for guidance on a hunt.

N.L. should look to Ontario for guidance on a structured hunt, says Gord Follett

It doesn’t take long for cormorants to take over a nesting area, Gord Follett says. This photograph was taken at Gull Island near Traverse Brook. (Submitted by Mitch Head)

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

Like many outdoors enthusiasts across Newfoundland and Labrador, my main concern with what seems to be an explosion of the double-crested cormorant population in recent years has been the impact on our fish species.

One doesn't have to dig too deeply, however, to discover that these big birds — unaffectionately referred to locally as "shags" — cause damage to much more than young salmon and trout.

Research shows that cormorant guano (that is, poop) and nest-building behaviours cause chemical and physical damage to soil and vegetation.

This is why groups and individuals across the province want our provincial government to put measures in place in the near future — not four years down the road — to curb cormorant numbers.

One such measure, of course, would be the introduction of a hunting season, as has been done in Ontario, after considerable research had been conducted and proof presented on the negative impact of these birds.

A double-crested cormorant comes in for a landing near Trepassey. (Cliff Doran/Submitted by Gord Follett)

In August 2020, the Ontario government agreed to "take steps to protect fish stocks and natural habitat across the province from the harmful impacts of double-crested cormorants by introducing a fall harvest for the species," according to a news release.

Hunters there are permitted to harvest 15 birds a day from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31. While some hunters may choose to eat these "fishy-tasting" cormorants, those who don't must still retrieve the birds and dispose of them properly.

Pressure leading up to this decision came through a well-organized effort that several organizations led. They included the Ontario Federation of Hunters and Anglers, Delta Waterfowl, the Ontario Commercial Fisheries Association and the Northwestern Ontario Sportsmen's Alliance.

Even tourism operators complained of losing business because of the stench from the cormorants' guano.

Mitch Head hunts and fishes in Gander Bay. He's seen here with a red-breasted merganser. (Submitted by Mitch Head)

While there is no formal committee in place here just yet, many of us in Newfoundland and Labrador realize we need a similar, organized approach if we are to make any headway with our government.

One avid outdoorsman and guide who has witnessed the growing numbers of cormorants and is willing to do his part is Mitch Head, founder and administrator of the popular Facebook group, guidelifeNL.

Of all the hunters and anglers I'm familiar with, very few spend as much time in the great outdoors as this Gander Bay man.

"At the very least, to start, I'm hoping to shed some light on this problem; share the concerns of many guides, outfitters and outdoors people in general in this province on what could potentially happen if these birds are left unchecked," Head said.

Worries about impact on environment 

Head was talking to a friend just this past Sunday about the shags at Gull Island near Traverse Brook in central Newfoundland, for example.

He did not paint a pretty picture.

"He told me the waters around the island are barren, not even mussels or anything to be found. Used to be sea cucumbers in the area too, but now there are none," he said. "The island went from having a scattered nest to hundreds today."

Head feels that "if left unchecked, the cormorant population will reach prolific numbers like that of Ontario, spread into our fresh water systems and wreak havoc on both our native fish species and the environment."

Cormorants are seen in large numbers in Lobster Island, Notre Dame Bay. (Submitted by Mitch Head)

He says cormorants are already causing trouble by taking over nesting areas, particularly islands, that had been nesting colonies for gulls and terns.

"There seems to be a viewpoint that these birds do not consume game and sport fish species," he said, "but when you look at the island of Newfoundland, when they are foraging in any freshwater environment, I can tell you — 100 per cent — cormorants are consuming our native game and sport fish species, since there are no other species present" that could have killed the fish.

In order to keep numbers in check, Head strongly believes a hunting season should be implemented, "especially in freshwater environments."

Although I'm sure we have a few wingnuts out there, this isn't about rednecks blasting away at every cormorant they see.

It's about protecting our fish stocks and the ecosystem in general.

A word to those people who want these changes and other improvements to our great outdoors and its resources, but are usually content to sit back and wait for others to do all the work: help out! Speak up. Contact your MHA and do your part to help reach the goals that you and others strive.

LISTEN | The divisive issue of cormorants was raised this winter on an episode of CBC Radio's The Broadcast
Frustrations among halibut harvesters who have to dump valuable fish over the sides of their boats. There's been a dramatic increase in the population of cormorants in recent years. Did you know there's a controversial cull on the seabirds in Ontario?

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador


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.

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