In late January, as an employee made his rounds checking Jimmy Malone's fish ponds, he found an alarming congregation of 500 cormorants. That many cormorants — depending on the fish being raised and how long the birds are unmolested — can do anywhere from $500 to $20,000 worth of damage in short order.

Malone had just had a lull in the cormorant action — three weeks of peace. Most of the normally migratory birds — reluctant to depart because of the mild winter thus far — had finally left. But then the 500 birds were found surrounding his pond like thieving sentries.

“Every fish farmer around here will tell you we have a severe problem with double-crested cormorants. We keep employees running birds every chance we can. We don't have enough employees to dedicate any solely to cormorant control. But when the birds get bad enough, we have to stop what we're doing and deal with them. That might mean losing sales, but we have to do it to save our fish,” says Malone, who runs a 1,200-acre operation near Lonoke, Ark.

Malone raises grass carp (sterile and non-sterile), three other species of Chinese carp (bighead, silver and black), crappie, bass, bluegill, and channel catfish. The worst depredation occurs on Malone's grass carp and bass.

“They love those two types of fish. I think partly that's because they like an 8-inch to 10-inch fish. This year, they hurt us worst on our feed-trained 6-inch to 10-inch bass. The fish were in a small pond that was easy for the birds to pen and herd up.”

Amazing teamwork

Malone says the birds' teamwork is amazing. “If you have 500 birds, say, they'll work in shifts. You won't see all of them at the same time — some will be diving, some catching their breath. When they finally get the fish herded into a corner of the pond, they make a kind of living curtain so the fish can't get out. They take turns maintaining the curtain while the others jump in and eat up.”

Mike Hoy, USDA Wildlife Services district supervisor, agrees. “I've seen them fish singly and in groups. I've seen ponds with lines of birds stretched out from side to side, herding fish. They'll do anything for a meal. I admire the birds. They're intelligent and very adaptive. Those are fine qualities. But we should be observing those qualities in a smaller population.”

The last couple of years, fish farmers have had permission to shoot an unlimited number of cormorants on their land. Fish farmers claim such power isn't enough.

“Many people will say, ‘That's all you need.’ But it's like anything else. If you were a deer hunter with no limits, would you be able to kill all the deer? No. You might want to bag every buck and doe in the area, but the animals are too smart for that.”

As deterrents, Malone's employees use shotguns, screamers and bangers commonly used by rice farmers to scare off blackbirds. But cormorants are wily and the deterrents' effectiveness wears off quickly.

“When the birds first come in, they may be uneducated. But it doesn't take long for them to learn what's dangerous. They actually get to know certain trucks, what a gun looks like. When they see us coming, they fly off out of range and just wait. They'll wait you out. Unless you stay there all day everyday, they're back on the ponds when you drive off,” says Malone.

What can be done? Fish farmers claim cormorants simply can't be controlled with current restrictions. It's physically impossible to harvest enough cormorants to make a difference, they say.

“The only way to control the population is for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to either control them at the roost or the breeding grounds. Those are the only options because the population is already too big — and getting bigger. We already have four or five roost sites around our operation. Most are reservoirs that farmers have built and left trees in,” says Malone.

It may seem schizophrenic, but while the Fish and Wildlife Service (under the Department of the Interior) is responsible for cormorant population management, USDA's Wildlife Services is the agency responsible for working with people having problems with cormorants.

At one time, Wildlife Services was part of the FWS. But years ago, Wildlife Services was sent to USDA, and cormorant management authority didn't transfer with it. Several Congressional bills would transfer at least some of that authority back.

“I hope that happens. It ends up being a problem because we're responsible for helping folks with problems, but we haven't the ability to do everything that's needed. The situation is overly complicated,” says Hoy.

And while the interests of farmers, sportsmen, government and environmentalists are placed on the federal scales and slowly weighed, the cormorant population keeps increasing. According to everyone Delta Farm Press spoke with for this story, the bottom line is that it just isn't possible to control populations from their wintering grounds. And, unfortunately, the Delta is increasingly where these birds claim winter residence.

The FWS is going to have to come up with a solid plan to manage cormorants, say farmers Delta Farm Press has spoken with. The agency is putting such a plan in place. Hearings on the subject are currently being held around the Delta. The problem, say many, is when taking into account the vast group of interested parties and agencies, finding a happy medium won't be easy.

“What farmers and, increasingly, sportsmen want isn't politically correct. They want someone to go in and destroy eggs at breeding sites. But this isn't a time to be labeled as a ‘bird killer.’ Regardless, the population is out of control and we need to control it. End of story,” says another Delta fish farmer.

“There has to be some kind of concerted national effort to get these birds' numbers back under control. The economic damage hits not only those of us raising fish for profit, but also sportsmen in the Delta states. A perfect example is a roost close to us that was leased out to duck hunters,” says Malone.

The plan was to use the reservoir for duck hunting and for fishing. The cormorants weren't bothered during duck season because no one wanted to disturb the few ducks around. That allowed the cormorants to eat that reservoir's fish with impunity.

“There won't be any fishing there. If 500 or 1,000 cormorants get loose on a 30-acre reservoir for a week, there won't be any fish left. That fishing plan is over,” says Malone.

Hoy says his agency sees a lot of impact on fisheries. He's also hearing from many non-farmers upset about cormorants.

“Lake Chicot is a large body of water that Lake Village, Ark., is built around. Cormorants are doing extensive damage there. We hear from upset residents regularly,” says Hoy.

There are reports that some cormorants have simply stopped migrating. Has Hoy seen evidence of that?

So far, it appears that the cormorants staying year-round in the Delta are non-breeders, says Hoy. But there is a resident, breeding population in southwest Arkansas on Millwood Lake.

“We suspect there are around 100 to 150 breeding pairs with the population growing rapidly. A large group of concerned citizens in the area and the Corps of Engineers are voicing displeasure with the cormorants. The birds are damaging the lake,” says Hoy.

There's also a big fear from fish farmers that the resident population at Millwood Lake will move into new territories.

“For several years, we used our permits to help control the population on that lake. FWS told us we weren't allowed to do that. They said it was an improper use of our permits. As a result, the population has kept growing at a significant rate,” says Hoy.

Cormorant depredation is a terrible situation for fish farmers, says Malone. Imagine this scenario: a rice farmer is offered $7 per bushel for his crop. He's happy and then suddenly a flock of protected blackbirds lands on his rice.

“He might nail a few with his .22, but eventually the birds get the crop. That's what happens all the time with us. It's so frustrating it'll drive you crazy.”

Malone got into the bass business a couple of years ago and has pushed that program hard. This year, he finally had the operation running like he wanted — the fish were trained on feed, and they were a nice size. Price-wise, 6-inch to 8-inch bass on a per-acre basis are worth $10,000 to $15,000.

“Granted, you still have to have a market. But the potential is there. There's little worse than coming in one morning and finding a group of cormorants has devastated a pond. They hit us for around $20,000. And the fish they didn't get we couldn't sell because the birds had marked them up so bad. That's real money down the drain.”

Malone says fish farmers are often told that cormorant numbers aren't a problem, and that their ability to shoot unlimited numbers of them on their farms is working. To that, he asks, “If we're allowed to shoot unlimited numbers — and our efforts are working — why is the population still spiking? It doesn't take a lot of mathematical knowledge to know that, in fact, the job isn't getting done.”


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.cam.