Just picture it: armed paratroopers storming a beach, armed to the teeth and ready to kill . . . a bunch of unarmed, helpless birds. That’s a bit over the top, but it’s not far from the truth and the lives of birds are actually at stake. The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) is sounding the alarm over plans by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that would see 16,000 cormorant birds in the Columbia River Estuary near Portland, OR killed using silenced rifles and night vision scopes in an effort to reduce the number of baby fish eaten by the birds. If the Army Corps plans go ahead, the 16,000 Double Crested Cormorants would be killed over a period of four years, but the ABC says their plans are flawed.
About 15,000 pairs of the birds live on East Sand Island (ESI) in the Columbia River, which provides an excellent breeding habitat for them and a great place from which to fish – as they dive into the water and catch small fish with their hooked beach. According to the Oregonian, the $1.5 million per year program run over four years would equip federal trappers with silenced rifles and night vision scopes to shoot the birds during their nesting season. The trappers would also cover the birds’ eggs in oil to keep them from hatching, while also flooding part of the island once the cormorant population reaches a target to limit nesting.
The ABC says the cull by the Army Corps would cut the number of cormorants on the island to less than half, a number that doesn’t sit well. “We have some deep concerns . . . The determination that the breeding population on ESI must be reduced to approximately 5,600 breeding pairs is not based on any rigorous or peer-reviewed analysis,” said Dr. George Wallace of the ABC in a press release. “Salmon smolt consumption by cormorants has varied from levels that are considered acceptable by NOAA Fisheries (2 million smolts in 2005) to those considered highly unacceptable (20 million smolts in 2011) despite little change in the size of the ESI (double crested cormorant) colony. The lack of direct correlation between smolt consumption and colony size means that the number of smolts saved from management to reduce colony size is difficult to predict based on colony size alone.”
Project manager for the Army Corps, Sondra Ruckwardt, says the cormorants have the biggest impact on juvenile steelhead trout, eating about 3.6 percent of the migrating population each year. According to the Oregonian, the Army Corps passed over a non-lethal alternative to the bird cull because it said it would just put the birds to another part of the estuary or other coastal area with endangered fish.