by Gail Fraser
For the last 14 years, I’ve studied double-crested cormorants at Tommy Thompson Park on the east side of Toronto’s harbour. Every April, I put on my coveralls and venture forth to follow a sample of nests, recording when nesting began and whether birds were successful at raising young. My goal is to track how the birds are doing and hopefully detect significant changes when they occur.
Ecology, the study of natural systems, is based on science. It addresses wide ranging questions, such as why some organisms are here but not there, what factors influence population growth and how predators impact prey populations. Because natural systems are dynamic and, locally, have hundreds of interacting species, they are complex and ever changing, just like the situation with COVID-19.
The scientists at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources know about this complexity. They publish highly regarded, peer-reviewed papers on all kinds of topics, including cormorant-fisheries interactions. Research that required detailed, painstaking approaches to understand complex aquatic ecosystems like Lake Ontario.
In the summer of 2020, the Ontario government announced the introduction of a fall hunting season for double-crested cormorants. With other ecologists, we opposed the decision as not being grounded in science, through an open letter to the Ontario minister of natural resources and forestry. We called on the agency to provide a "science-based, detailed and peer-reviewed approach" to resolve conflicts with cormorants. (See CBC Article and TVO interview on Open Season on Cormorants). A provincial wide hunt, with no reporting on numbers killed, will not permit coordination with the U.S. to ensure the longevity of this species. The hunt is a huge mistake and a complete mis-management of this species.
Cormorants have been vilified for centuries. A European settler in 1634 objected that cormorants “destroy abundance of small fish.”
Consider the numbers: If a thousand small game hunters achieved the daily bag limit of 15 birds per day for 10 days, this would eliminate the entire breeding population of cormorants in Ontario. Yet, we’re offered no rationale for that number, no prediction of the results or summary of the objectives. A key component of sustainable management of natural resources is to identify a target: what is the desired number of cormorants in Ontario? Zero?
On one hand, the Ford Government has used science to modify society’s actions based on the best available research on COVID-19. On the other, it has ignored ecological science to “manage” cormorants. Instead, it is appeasing some members of the public because some people don’t like cormorants. They don’t like their smell or that they kill trees. They don’t like that they eat fish. These complaints are not new; cormorants have been vilified for centuries. A European settler in 1634 objected that cormorants “destroy abundance of small fish.”
While modern scientific studies show the relationships between cormorants and fish populations is complex and site specific, the Ontario government chose to adopt a 17th-century thinking for cormorant management. But let’s just call this hunt for what it is: A hate-on for cormorants. There is nothing scientific about it.
Toronto’s cormorant colony is the largest in North America. It should be celebrated as a conservation success story, but now its very existence is in jeopardy. I’ll continue my research on cormorants, but I’m filled with trepidation, instead of joyful anticipation.
Aside from studying the biology and management of colonial nesting waterbirds, Gail Fraser also studies the environmental management of offshore oil and gas extraction. For more info on her research, visit gsfraser.blog.yorku.ca/. This article has been updated from an earlier story in Scarborough Mirror/Toronto.com.