Local hunter defends controversial cormorant hunt

A local hunter and fisherman is defending a controversial cormorant hunt, arguing that the colony population is exploding and damaging fish and trees. He believes opposition to the plan originates in anti-gun, anti-hunting sentiment.

Outdoorsman says the nuisance bird population is exploding and damaging natural habitat

A double-crested cormorant surfaces after catching dinner. An Ontario-wide cull began on Sept. 15, lasting until Dec. 31, 2020, allowing hunters to kill 15 birds a day. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)

The controversy surrounding a government-sanctioned cull of the double-crested cormorant has pitted neighbours against each other on Big Rideau Lake, 100 kilometres southwest of Ottawa.

On Sept. 15, Ontario allowed a hunt of the large fish-eating birds, after the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry concluded the cormorants were harming fish stocks and damaging natural habitat with their guano.

The new rules allow hunters with an outdoors card and small-game licence to shoot up to 15 cormorants a day until Dec. 31, 2020. The ministry estimates there are 143,000 breeding cormorants in Ontario. 

People who oppose the hunt describe it as an unnecessary "slaughter," with some wildlife experts saying it's not backed up by scientific evidence.

Some people living on Big Rideau Lake, however, say the birds have been detrimental to the wildlife.

Brian Preston is a hunter and fisherman in Portland, Ont., not far from where a colony of cormorants lives on an island in the lake. He spoke to Ottawa Morning host Robyn Bresnahan, on CBC Radio this week. The conversation is edited for length and clarity.

Robyn Bresnahan: You did some hunting yourself on Tuesday. How did it go? 

Brian Preston: It was a good day. We got out there, but we were totally shocked and surprised to see a protester halfway up the tree on the main little island obstructing hunting and scaring all the birds away. I was totally shocked to see him trying to disallow hunters their legal right to get out and hunt. But we did manage to get two birds. 

Retired biologist Buzz Boles says he climbed a tree on an island in Big Rideau Lake to observe the hunt. Hunter Brian Preston believes Boles meant to disrupt the cormorants and deny his legal right to cull them. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Why do you choose to hunt cormorants? 

That's how I was brought up. Dad took me out hunting. We spent time outdoors and camping. Hunting and fishing were a natural part of my life. I took all the courses and have my firearms safety certificate. And I love being out. It's a sport. It's a recognized legal sport. It always has been and always should be in this country. 

There's not a recipe out there that makes them taste good ....but if somebody has a great recipe for them, I'd love to have it.- Brian Preston, local hunter

Can you understand why some residents don't agree with the hunt? 

Absolutely, but part of that is they're against hunting and guns. They just want to leave the birds alone to let their population self-regulate. But that's just not going to happen.

Man has been interfering. By putting regulations on hunting the birds more than 40 years ago, cormorants were made a protected species. The birds have just propagated to the point where they're just overrunning the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. Now, the colonies have to find new habitats. So they're flying north and starting to come into inland lakes like beautiful Big Rideau Lake.

Some say science shows that cormorants do not harm fish populations and that birds only clear trees to build nests. What do you say to that? 

It's important for people to do their own homework. You have a very emotional set of people on the environmental side that will use selective science to push their argument.

I've been doing the readings on this to self-educate since 2015. There are definitely effects on the fish. When you have a nesting pair of cormorants, they produce four eggs. They don't have natural predators. When they get to the juvenile adult stage, they eat about 1.5 pounds of fish per bird per day.

Compound that season by season, and you start to see the huge numbers and the detrimental effect on the fishing population. 

Site of a cormorant colony on Big Rideau Lake. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Dozens of wildlife experts sent an open letter to the province asking for localized management of cormorant populations, instead of a hunt. How much room is there to reconcile both approaches?

The major impetus has to be from the Ministry of Natural Resources. Through the years, they've had controlled culls involving a combination of hunting and oiling the eggs.

We're only part of the solution. And it's a small part. We're not going to impact the overall population from its explosive growth, since they've been protected for more than 40 years. 

A cormorant snacking. (Submitted by Kylie Goodyear)

What do you do with the cormorants once you shoot them? 

Anybody will tell you they're like mergansers. When we hunt for ducks and geese and other game bird species, they're edible. But mergansers and cormorants? There's not a recipe out there that makes them taste good.

All ethical hunters want to be conservationists. We hunt and eat what we can. We fish and eat what we can, or we release the fish. But cormorants are a huge nuisance species and they need to be controlled. But if somebody has a great recipe for them, I'd love to have it. 

With files from CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning

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