The awkward-looking seabirds are one of nature’s most capable fish catchers -– yet they never seem to garner the respect heaped upon other avian piscators.
In China, they have been trained to dive and harvest fish for commercial markets for more than 1,000 years.
Here in the U.S., however, their angling prowess mainly gets them in trouble. They’ve been accused of everything from gobbling up salmon fry in Oregon to wiping out yellow perch populations in Canada.
The most abundant species – the double crested cormorant – has become so problematic in South Carolina that state officials are resorting to lethal means – shooting them – to reduce the fish-foraging flocks on the Santee Cooper lakes.
According to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, which authorized a first-ever cormorant hunt this year under a special permit from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, complaints have been pouring in for years – mainly from anglers and guides.
The problem is that cormorants, which can eat a pound of fish per day, are consuming so many forage fish, such as shad and herring, that there aren’t enough left for gamefish (which are being eaten, too).
As if the fish consumption wasn’t enough, the colonies of birds are also killing trees along the lakes, where their somewhat acidic droppings accumulate.
So far, more than 750 people have shown up at training sessions to qualify South Carolina participants in the cormorant reduction hunt, scheduled for Feb. 2 through March 31 in an area restricted to the legal boundaries of the Santee Cooper lakes.
The same birds plaguing fish populations at Santee are also quite plentiful here in Augusta and can be found along the Savannah River, at Thurmond Lake and in large numbers at the Merry Brickyard ponds and similar wetlands.
According to the National Audubon Society’s database of annual Christmas Bird Counts, 633 double crested cormorants were spotted in the Augusta area during the 2012 census, making them the fourth most prolific among 110 species observed. (The only birds seen in greater numbers were coots, robins and redwing blackbirds).
I wondered if there was any evidence of fishery damage in Georgia, since it has been documented at Santee.
The answer, according to the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, is no.
John Biagi, the state’s chief of fisheries, said he has reviewed South Carolina’s control program and sees there is a significant problem at the Santee Lakes. Those conditions are not as severe in Georgia, however.
“While we do control cormorants on hatcheries and Public Fishing Areas, we have not seen numbers on public reservoirs rise to the level S.C. is experiencing,” he said.
TASTE OF SOMETHING WILD: One of Augusta’s best annual parties for outdoor minded folks is getting close.
Bill Phillips, a member of the Augusta West Rotary Club, emailed last week to remind me that the 13th annual “Taste of Something Wild” is scheduled for Saturday, March 8, at the Julian Smith Barbecue Pit.
The wild game tasting event and soiree will be held from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., with proceeds benefiting Augusta Alzheimer’s Foundation and the Georgia-Carolina Council of the Boy Scouts of America.
The event relies on donated game and the culinary expertise of area sportsmen, with typical menu items including venison, doves, duck and quail. Tickets are $40 in advance or $45 at the door and are available from Rotary Club members or the Alzheimer’s Foundation.
FLY FISHERS MEETING: The CSRA Fly Fishers group will meet at 7 p.m. Monday at the clubhouse of the River Island Community in Evans. Activities include planning trips and projercts for the new year.
Visitors are welcome. For more details, visit www.csraflyfishers.org.