The Plight of the Cormorant


Double-crested Cormorants are water birds that are widely distributed throughout North America and abundant here in Florida. They swim like ducks, sit low in the water like loons, and can dive to 25 feet or more. From a distance, they are often confused with the related Anhinga. Both are diving birds and can often be seen sunning with wings spread to dry out. But closer inspection reveals beautiful hues of taupe and brown plumage, a brilliant orange patch of facial skin, and aquamarine eyes that sparkle like jewels. During breeding season, they sprout white crests that look a bit like ears.


A few decades ago, the widespread use of DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and other harmful insecticides nearly wiped them out. After the U.S. began banning such chemicals, their numbers steadily increased and Cormorants became a conservation success story. So why on God’s not-so-green-earth has the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued permits to cull tens of thousands of these birds each year across 37 states as recently as 2017? They have no commercial value and they’re not in the least bit palatable because of their nearly exclusive diet, which is fish, which is also a clue to the answer.

While cormorants are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) the FWS can issue Depredation Permits which entitle specific individuals, private organizations, and other federal and state agencies to lethally take a protected species. And so, they did, based on complaints of proliferating populations of the birds wreaking havoc (supposedly) on fish populations.


The competition between anglers, both recreational and commercial, and fish-eating birds is nothing new. Double-crested Cormorants are considered pests to aquaculturists because of their intense predation on fishponds which can cause thousands of dollars in losses to farmers. But the science simply does not support the idea that they pose any significant threat to fish populations, commercial or otherwise. Thankfully, here in Florida, there is an extremely low cap on these permits, only 211 annually.


Why it Matters

The plight of the Double-crested Cormorant represents a microcosm of a much larger problem. Protected species under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918 continually face threats from industry and greedy corporate polluters. It began with overhunting and poaching for the demand of feathers. But as industry evolved, along with man’s never ending pursuit of profit, the danger to bird populations has exploded.


Oil company waste pits kill around 40 million birds a year alone. Add in oil spills, loss of habitat due to development, collisions with utility and other structures, pesticides, and electrocutions (yes you read that right), and the numbers jump up to almost a billion birds lost every year to industry in the U.S. If those numbers aren’t bad enough, consider that the MBTA itself has recently faced threats of rollbacks that would worsen the situation. The attempts to erode the MBTA have not come to fruition but it's a slippery slope when politics and special interests start playing around with a law that serves a crucial role in protecting the planet.


We Need Birds, They Don’t Need Us

Migratory birds provide essential ecosystem services to humanity and we need them far more than they need us. They play an important role in pollination and create natural growth by spreading seeds. Birds can transform and maintain entire landscapes. They are a natural form of pest control, feeding on harmful insects and rodents that save the farming industry millions of dollars. A recent study has shown that birds eat 400-500 million tons of insects a year. Vultures are scavengers that play a valuable role in nutrient cycling. Able to rapidly dispose of large carcasses, vultures act as public health wardens and street cleaners. By consuming decomposing animals, they reduce the risk of contamination by pathogens. Over its lifetime, a single vulture provides waste disposal services worth around $11,600. Migrating birds also inspire science and serve as important indicators for the health of the planet. They respond quickly to changing weather patterns and can provide early warning signs for climate change related issues.

Bird watching contributes 41 billion dollars a year to the U.S. economy and our own Treasure Coast is a national hot spot where locals and visitors look forward to the annual arrival of American white pelicans, marvel at the enormous sandhill cranes, and take photo adventures to catch that coveted shot of the stunning roseate spoonbills.


Yet, for all they do for our planet and way of life, birds ask for nothing in return. If they could, they would likely ask simply to be left alone. In fact, that is true for nearly all wildlife. Nature has a way of taking care of itself and does so much more efficiently without the interference of human beings.



Learn more about the Migratory Bird Treaty Act at fws.gov and audubon.org and check out our local Birding Guide.