Nfld. & Labrador

No scientific evidence to support cormorant shoot, says MUN bird expert

Ian Jones says documents the provincial Fisheries Department provided to CBC News don't justify issuing permits to shoot double-crested cormorants.

Documents obtained through access-to-information request don't provide justification for shooting birds

A double-crested cormorant, left, and a great cormorant are pictured at Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John's. (Bruce Mactavish/Submitted by Ian Jones)

A Memorial University bird biologist says documents the provincial Fisheries Department provided to CBC News don't justify issuing permits to shoot double-crested cormorants.

Prof. Ian Jones told CBC News on Thursday the government's justification doesn't hold water.

"What it basically looks like is a solution looking for a problem, and from a scientific perspective there isn't a problem," said Jones.

"The government has a solution that involves firearms and lethal force when there really isn't any scientific evidence that there is actually a problem. It's very unusual because wildlife management is usually done using a scientific, fact-based approach. With reason. Rational decision-making."

Ian Jones, a bird scientist who teaches at Memorial University in St. John's, says the government's justification for the cormorant shoot don't add up. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Shooting permits announced in June

In early June, the provincial government announced it was implementing new control measures to address cormorant populations.

The Fisheries, Forestry and Agriculture Department said beginning June 15 it would accept requests for permits "to allow lethal removal of birds from specific areas, such as important fish habitat, water supplies or aquaculture operations."

I don't consider birds essentially building their nests too close to another bird to be a problem. So it's a bit far-fetched that this is an issue.- Ian Jones

In a release at the time, the department said, "Concerns have arisen that rapidly increasing populations in localized areas will negatively impact native fish populations, cause property and environmental damage, and may conflict with other seabird nesting activity."

CBC requested evidence

CBC News filed an access-to-information request for the evidence the provincial government used to support the lethal removal of cormorants.

The province responded with 251 pages of documents, most of which was emails between government officials. It also included newspaper articles and opinion pieces published by CBC.

The documents reveal some people in southern Labrador fear cormorants are displacing other seabirds, such as eider ducks, and some people in Newfoundland believe cormorants are a threat to local fish habitats, such as the Waterford River and its invasive, brown trout population.

Jones said the documentation doesn't support the premise that cormorants are a threat to native fish populations, to the environment or to other birds. 

"There isn't really any scientific evidence that cormorants have negatively affected fish populations in Newfoundland and Labrador," said Jones.

"I'm a marine bird conservationist and I don't consider birds essentially building their nests too close to another bird to be a problem. So it's a bit far-fetched that this is an issue, and it's really part of the defamation that's being launched against this harmless bird."

Minister calls cormorants 'nuisance birds'

The documents do show that Fisheries Minister Derrick Bragg is interested in some sort of hunt, cull or permitted shooting of cormorants.

After a CBC opinion piece that called for a limited hunt of cormorants was shared with Bragg by email, the minister wrote an official in his department: "My understanding was that ordinary persons could apply for a permit to shoot these nuisance birds."

Documents show that Fisheries Minister Derrick Bragg is interested in some sort of hunt or cull of cormorants. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

 Another email from Bragg to an official in his department asks: "Can you give me an update on the sport hunt for shags / Derrick." Cormorants are commonly called "shags" in Newfoundland.

Jones fears unintended damage

There are two types of cormorants in Newfoundland and Labrador: great cormorants, which are more likely to be found in salt water, and double-crested cormorants, which are more likely to be found in fresh water habitats. The two birds look very similar. Jones fears someone with a permit to shoot double-crested cormorants may mistakenly kill great cormorants.

One permit issued

So far, few residents have applied for permits to shoot cormorants. 

Fisheries Department officials say that as of Thursday they had received eight applications for permits to shoot the birds and only one has been approved.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Quinn

CBC News

Mark Quinn is a videojournalist with CBC's bureau in St. John's.

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