Cormorants a nuisance -- but not yet legal target -- in Beaufort County

rlurye@islandpacket.comOctober 30, 2013 

The S.C. Department of Natural Resources plans to allow people to hunt the double-crested cormorant, top photo, on a trial basis at lakes Marion and Moultrie. The double-crested cormorant can be identified by its hook-tipped beak, unlike the anhinga, bottom photo, which has a straight beak. The anhinga is sometimes mistaken for the double-crested cormorant due to its size and behavior.

DELAYNA EARLEY — Staff photo Buy Photo

They roost along Skull Creek, the Beaufort River, the lagoons of Sun City and the ponds of Victoria Bluff -- just about any body of water with fish for the taking.

For years, fishermen have considered Beaufort County's population of double-crested cormorants a nuisance because the long-necked, dull-black birds with big appetites can hurt those who fish for sport or business.

A few hours to the north, the situation has gotten so bad on lakes Marion and Moultrie -- collectively known as the Santee-Cooper lakes -- that the S.C. Department of Natural Resources is developing a trial program to allow people to shoot cormorants, even though they are among the 800 or so species protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

South Carolina is one of several states with permission, through a depredation order, to control its population. DNR will allow residents to apply to shoot the birds on lakes Marion and Moultrie in February and March.

That won't be of much help to Mike Kovak of Sun City Hilton Head, who drinks his morning coffee on his porch this time of year and watches hundreds of cormorants fly into the Okatie community's ponds.

"The cormorants come in full force, 20 across, and clean out every fish that's in our ponds," he said. "They're trained animals."

Kovak, who fishes recreationally in the Sun City lagoons, has sought a solution to the birds for years. He hasn't gotten very far, with one man even suggesting he "take a gun when nobody's around and shoot 'em."

Kovak can't do that, but a few miles away at the Waddell Mariculture Center in greater Bluffton, employees harvest a limited number each year to keep them from decimating their cobia hatchery.

The special permit is available to aquaculture facilities, but before obtaining one, the center must prove it has exhausted its options in protecting the hatchery -- from setting off a loud propane cannon to covering ponds with nets.

Killing just two or three cormorants a year since about 2008 has been far more effective, according to center director Al Stokes.

"Some people believe there are scout birds, and once they're removed, others don't come," Stokes said.

The cormorants dive under water, surface with a fish and take flight. That's when Waddell staff members shoot.

That solution might not work everywhere, though, even if there were no restrictions on harvesting double-crested cormorants. For example, it would be dangerous to hunt inside a gated community, said Sun City Hunting and Fishing Club president Ed Gruel.

"Would we support eliminating some of the cormorants? Sure. But I don't know how you would do that," he said. "Then you have people running around with shotguns at 5 o'clock in the morning."

Until the S.C. Department of Natural Resources comes up with another solution, Gruel will consider the birds a cost of doing business. In spring, Sun City will restock its ponds with bluegill. Many of them will simply become food for cormorants.

"I guess they serve a purpose," Gruel said. "If their purpose is to eat all our fish, so be it."

Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.

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