Birds in the News

The Corps, the Cormorants, and the Cull

One cormorant’s plea to stop the slaughter.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently approved a culling of the large mixed seabird colony on East Sand Island, near the mouth of the Columbia River. The plan aims to reduce the number of double-crested cormorants to 5,600 breeding pairs from roughly 13,000 by 2018, through a combination of hazing, oiling the eggs in 15,000 nests, and shooting approximately 11,000 individuals. The cull is necessary, says the Corps, because cormorants eat an average of 11 million young salmon and steelhead each year—up to 20 percent of hatchery releases—as the smolts migrate out to sea.

During the drafting of the environmental impact statement, the Corps received more than 150,000 public comments, of which about 98 percent opposed its plan. Here is one such letter, dredged up from the very bottom of the pile.


To Whom It May Concern:

I realize the comment period may be over, and that as of March 19, your plan has received the blessing of the necessary higher-ups. But I feel I have to speak out.

To begin, I admit that we are not the most beloved of birds. People kill more than 40,000 of us each year all over the country. And I get it. We have a taste for fish, and an enviable talent for catching them. When you make said fish freely available to us by raising great numbers of them all in one place and sending them downstream, we simply can’t help helping ourselves. (I am pretty sure that if you happened upon an all-you-can-eat buffet you would tuck in, too.) True, we sometimes drive out animals more couth than ourselves. We poop so much that trees sometimes die. But it is natural for us to travel in large groups, and make ourselves at home as we see fit. This is a behavior with which you, as part of the U.S. Army, are familiar, I think? But I’m just speculating here.

In any case, this brings me to the present circumstance. I don’t want to embarrass you, but you, people of the Corps, do remember that you created East Sand Island for birds, right? Back in the 1990s, thousands of Caspian Terns nested on Rice Island, a few miles upriver. They, too, ate millions of young salmon and steelhead. So you drove the terns to this island, which you had created out of sand. Once they settled in, they shifted their diet to other small fishes. (Terns are agreeable like that, bless their hearts.)

But we cormorants showed up, too. We took a look around and thought, Hey, nice island! What better place to pluck out the young hatchery fish sent out every year in tremendous, naïve waves to the sea! (You’ve dammed up so many other streams and rivers that there are few ways left for them to get around us. Thanks!) Our numbers increased. We started eating the—excuse me—your salmon. And yes, we eat a lot of them. So you tried to thwart our voracious appetites. You tried to make the island less homey. You confined us to ever-smaller areas, and surrounded us with walls, fences, and observation towers. Our colony now looks like a prison camp! But we didn’t leave. Indeed, we persevered in spite of your best efforts. What can I say? We are a hardy folk.

I can see how this might be frustrating for you. And by “this” I mean the nuances of ecology and all of its unintended consequences, its unforeseen contingencies. You are the Corps of Engineers, after all. You have a proud history of seeing the world as a place where Tab A goes into Slot B, just so. You see: salmon. You see: cormorants. You see: cormorants eating salmon. Subtract: cormorants. Problem: solved. Or so you assume. (Never mind that most of those extremely tasty smolts wouldn’t have made it back to their native hatcheries; that states like Montana and Washington actually consider hatchery steelhead and salmon harmful to wild genetic stocks.)

I can’t help but admire your resolve. Your decision-making has the solidity of concrete. Rest assured, I don’t write to critique the relative merits of your plans. I’ll leave that to others more qualified than I, such as the several biologists—including the one you yourself hired to study my comings and goings for nearly 20 years—who say you both misinterpret and misrepresent the data and therefore are not making the correct use of the best available science.

Granted, we do eat a lot of fish. Mea culpa. And I know it is easier and—and let’s be honest here—more viscerally satisfying to blast away at me and few thousand of my kin than it is to confront the full range of ecological complications for which you are responsible. (We are a far ranging species—we remember Katrina.) Yet I must remind you: Cormorants can’t build dams. It is not thanks to us that well over half of the Columbia salmon and steelhead runs are threatened or endangered. But now that you’re confronted with what to you seems a distasteful side effect of your work (to us it is glorious!), you go all ballistic. It hardly seems fair. We’re just doing what nature intended us birds to do.

Thank you for considering these comments. Perhaps we could discuss the issue one day over a little (wild) salmon. I hear Cabezon up in Northeast Portland serves a nice fillet.

From one rampant consumer to another,


P.S. To all you sea lions yukking it up at the East Mooring Basin in Astoria: Stop laughing. Your time will come. 


Update: On Monday, April 13, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received the necessary permits to proceed with the cull. The plans will wipe out 15 percent of the Double-crested Cormorants west of the Rocky Mountains. The Audubon Society of Portland plans to sue the Army Corps of Engineers, according to an April 14 press release. “We are deeply disappointed in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for issuing these permits,” Audubon Society of Portland conservation director Bob Sallinger said in the release. “The pubic looks to the Fish and Wildlife Service to protect wild birds, not to permit wanton slaughter." 

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