In October, the European Parliament will vote on a report calling for an “EU cormorant management plan”. In plain text this means, controlling their population through lethal measures. Here are five reasons why this plan is not a good solution.
Seabirds are going to… eat fish. The aquaculture industry is mad at seabirds for foraging fish. Meanwhile, almost all our waters are overfished by humans, who are also wiping out fish habitats while they are at it. The cormorant diet consists of fish. It’s as simple as that. Just like bees feed on pollen and nectar. So, it’s obvious that, when they are out foraging, cormorants will be attracted to bodies of water where fish are abundant and easy to catch. Does that mean that some of them will be attracted to aquaculture facilities? Yes. Should they be killed because of this? Absolutely not. Science suggests that reducing the overall population of cormorants will not reduce conflicts at a local scale (i.e. aquaculture facility) – unless you put an enormous destructive effort on it. If a site is popular, whatever cormorants that are left, will continue to come back – no matter how well the population is “managed”.
Cormorants (great cormorant) almost went extinct in the 1970s due to human persecution and habitat loss primarily caused by humans. Thanks to the EU Birds Directive, as of 1979 it became illegal to disturb, capture, or kill them, as well as destroying their nests or robbing their nests. That, coupled with the reduction of water pollution and a ban on some dangerous pesticides has helped the great cormorant population bounce back across Europe in the past 30 years. Surely it would be a pity to undo all this great work just because cormorants like eating fish?
We’re ignoring the real problems. It is easy for industries to blame cormorants for the decline of fish population, but the reality is much more complex. The INTERCAFE research project showed that when cormorants are identified as a problem for fisheries there’s actually a whole range of reasons why fish production is in decline, including: invasive species, climate change, impoverished water quality, pollution, or the increase of algae in waters (aka eutrophication). In short, to produce fish, the restoration of natural habitats is key. Killing off cormorants won’t change anything – restoring the natural habitats of cormorants and fish, and sustainably managing wetlands, however, can provide part of the solution to these problems.
There are other solutions! The INTERCAFE project developed a toolbox with a wide range of management actions to reduce the vulnerability of fish to predation and deter cormorants from specific sites. This includes solutions to make sites less attractive to cormorants for nesting or feeding and measures to protect the fish (e.g. artificial refuges for fish, audible and visual deterrents for cormorants, nets and overhead wires, etc.) While there is no perfect measure that will work in every situation, all these techniques have been proven useful to reduce “conflicts” and deserve additional resources, such as from the new European Maritime Fisheries and Aquaculture Funds (EMFAF), to explore, develop and test them.
It’s really not so difficult. Just listen to the science. The ongoing discussion in the European Parliament on the “necessary management” of great cormorants is not based on the latest scientific consensus. The CormoDist project (endorsed by the Commission) clearly concluded that population management does not have an effect on specific site interactions. And it is not possible to know where the reduction of the population will have an impact.
In Jersey, cormorant is considered to be threatened and is RED on the local bird redlist. Despite seeming to be common, cormorants only nest in a very small number of sites and are vulnerable to disturbance and persecution. The rapid decline of the closely related shag, once a very common bird in Jersey, should serve as a salutary reminder of how fast a bird species’ fortune can change.