After years of complaining about the impact of the expanding population of fish-eating cormorants on the Santee-Cooper lakes, fishing advocates will have a chance to do something about it this winter.
The S.C. Department of Natural Resources is coming up with the final details of a plan that would allow people to register with the agency to shoot cormorants, a migratory bird species otherwise found throughout North America and protected from hunting. The trial program will be only for lakes Marion and Moultrie and only in a nearly two-month period after traditional duck season, according to Derrell Shipes, chief of statewide wildlife projects at DNR, who briefed the an agency committee on the plan last week.
Santee-Cooper fishing guides say it's about time.
"It's been getting steadily worse," said Don Drose, who retired from guiding after 52 years on the lakes. "We're getting a bigger migration each year, and now we've got more staying all year."
Drose estimates there were 25,000 cormorants on the lakes at the migratory peak last winter. Even if he's overestimating, it's clear there are many more of the long-necked birds than just a few years ago. A Clemson graduate student did a scientific survey in 2008 that put the estimate at 6,000 birds.
Rebounding from population loss due to insecticides in the 1950s and 1960s, double-crested cormorants have joined coyotes and wild hogs among species that have increased in numbers and caused widespread problems in South Carolina. Unlike coyotes and wild hogs, cormorants don't appear vicious to the general public. But they are more than just pests to the people who fish, or help others fish, on large lakes in the state.
"They get on the bass beds and the bream beds and eat everything," Drose said.
The 2008 study by Clemson graduate student Adam Kelley on the Santee-Cooper lakes found an average of eight fish in the gut of cormorants examined, and a winter population of about 6,000 birds on the lakes. That's 48,000 fish a day, and Kelley's study came during the depth of a severe drought when populations likely were reduced.
Is it any wonder fishing guides want the state wildlife agency to come up with a way to reduce the cormorant population?
"They've had us hollering for this for 15 years," said Kevin Davis, an active fishing guide on the lakes. "There's always been cormorants on these reservoirs, but there's been a lot more migrant cormorants in recent years."
Cormorants are large birds, 24 to 34 inches, with black feathers and orange coloring around the face. They float in the water and dive under for long periods to chase fish.
Kelley's study found shad dominated the cormorants' diet, and he didn't find any traces of small-mouth bass in the birds. But fishing guides on the lakes for years have complained that cormorants were taking small-mouth bass, one of the major game fish people pay to catch, along with bluegills, bream and small catfish.
Studies in other areas indicate yellow perch and small mouth bass are in the cormorant diet. Other states have allowed limited shooting of cormorants, often around aquaculture facilities.
Regardless of whether they eat small-mouth bass, the cormorants impact the bass fishery by scooping up many of the shad the bass typically feed on, Shipes said. And because cormorants roost together in large numbers, the large quantity of feces kills vegetation and harms water quality, especially in shallow coves, he said.
Because cormorants are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, states need to apply for special permission, called a depredation order, to reduce populations. The S.C. DNR got a depredation order, and now it's looking for people to help.
Rather than do the culling with the agency's limited staff, the plan is to ask people who want to hunt the cormorants to register with the agency. They would have to take a short instructional course and pledge to provide information on the numbers of birds killed to help with research on the impact on the species.
This isn't like the popular alligator-hunting program. Shooting cormorants doesn't provide the thrills of an alligator hunt, and there's little use for the meat or any part of the carcass for cormorants. In fact, one of the requirements for permission to shoot the cormorants is agreeing to properly dispose of the carcasses.
DNR officials suspect fishing guides will sign up. Drose thinks some duck hunters will jump at the chance to extend their season.
Wildlife biologists wonder if the Santee-Cooper cormorant community will react to hunting by moving to smaller lakes or shifting north to Lake Wateree. But the agency is reluctant to make it a statewide effort until the results of the pilot program are clear, Shipes said.
About the double-crested cormorant
The migratory bird species' population has grown to the point wildlife officials are looking for ways to reduce the population.
- Scientific name: Phalacrocorax auritus
- Size: Adults are 24-34 inches long, with a nearly 4-foot wingspan
- Coloring: Mostly black -- with a small double crest of black and white feathers in breeding season -- with orange skin around the beak
- Distribution: Throughout North America
- Habitat: Prefer large lakes, where they dive from a floating position to catch fish