Biologists decry continued cormorant hunt as local population appears to dwindle

The annual hunt is in its second season, after being approved by the Ontario government in 2020. It lasts from Sept. 15 until Dec. 3, but a retired biologist says the birds' numbers on Big Rideau Lake have declined in the past five years.

Cormorant hunt is mid-way through second year, lasting from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31

Retired biologist Buzz Boles says the resident cormorant population on Big Rideau Lake, approximately 100 kilometres southwest of Ottawa, is declining. (Ben Andrews/CBC News)

A cormorant colony in eastern Ontario is dwindling, and a retired biologist who monitors the birds says Ontario's cormorant hunt has left the colony on the brink of survival.

In his volunteer role for the Big Rideau Lake Association, Buzz Boles has charted the disappearance of cormorant nests and a decline in the lake's resident population since 2015.

Boles said the aquatic birds' numbers have declined from a high of around 90 birds in 2015 to 43 in his latest count in July.

Boles said cormorant populations across the province are suffering from an avian viral infection called Newcastle disease, and the provincewide cormorant hunt is endangering already-diminished colonies, like the one on Big Rideau Lake.

"My expectation is that the population will continue to go down," he said. "And in time, this historic colony will be gone."

Boles believes Ontario's annual cormorant hunt is the result of lobbying from fishing and hunting groups, not evidence-based resource management. (Ben Andrews/CBC News)

In July 2020, Ontario's Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry announced the controversial hunt, allowing hunters with an outdoors card and small game licence to kill up to 15 birds a day from Sept. 15 to Dec. 31.

Since cormorant meat tastes unpleasant, the government changed existing rules to allow hunters to throw their catch in the landfill or bury it in their backyard.

But Boles said he's noticed hunters aren't removing all of the bird carcasses from Big Rideau Lake.

"They've violated the fundamental rule of hunting, and that is, if you kill it, you eat it," he said.

Boles found empty shot gun shells and five dead cormorants abandoned on an island in Big Rideau Lake at the end of October 2021. (Ben Andrews/CBC News)

Fish a poor excuse to 'annihilate' birds: expert

Last year, Boles joined a long list of experts arguing the hunt is not based on science, but is instead the result of relentless lobbying from hunting and fishing groups.

Dozens of experts signed an open letter to the government, arguing the province should pursue "targeted, localized management" instead.

Steven Cooke, an environmental science professor at Carleton University and a signatory of the open letter, said the province often frames the hunt as a way to protect fish from cormorants. Although the situation for Ontario's fish population isn't "rosy," he said, people — not cormorants — are to blame.

"It's troubling when fish are being used as a justification to try and annihilate bird populations," he said.

Hunting improves social tolerance, federation says

CBC reached out to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry for a response to concerns about the continued hunt, but was told no one was available for an interview.

Hunters have argued the cormorant population continues to be overabundant.

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters lobbied the Ontario government to address concerns over the birds' numbers, said Lauren Tonelli, a resource management specialist with federation.

She said the federation pushed for active management of the cormorant population and later had mixed feelings when the province proposed a blanket hunting season.

A close up of a Double-crested Cormorant in a tree in Florida. Cormorants are often blamed for killing vegetation because of their fecal matter. (Rhona Wise/AFP via Getty Images)

Tonelli said the benefit of the hunt comes down to promoting social tolerance.

"A lot of people have seen cormorants cause these kind of dead islands ... and it's created a really negative opinion of cormorants," she said. "The ability to feel like they can do something to help reduce this overabundance that we're seeing, I think really helps [hunters] get a feeling that something's being done."

Tonelli said the federation's main concern isn't cormorant populations on large water bodies, but inland fisheries on smaller lakes, like Big Rideau Lake.

Yet, Boles said the birds are a long-standing and positive presence on small lakes in the province.

"I see lots of people taking their kids out in boats ... right up close to the colony," he said.

"It's a great entryway to teach young people about ecology and animal species. Instead, the government has decided we're going to shoot them."


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