Cormorants are black, oily-looking birds. Some people find them beautiful. To others they’re an ugly scourge. I’m rather fond of them, having grown up on Lake Ontario where you see the odd few on rocky bars in Hamilton Harbour.
But on Lake Erie, their population seems to have exploded and now may be causing some serious ecological damage. Estimates peg the population at well over 100,000 nesting pairs. And some 8000 of these live on Middle Island, a limestone outcrop that is Canada’s southernmost point.
It is here, on an island reputed to have been owned by gangsters and visited by Al Capone, that Parks Canada is embarking on one of its most controversial wildlife management projects. Last week, they shot about 70 of the birds. In five years, when the cull is completed, the island’s cormorant population will have been decimated. Only about 800 will remain.
I spent a good portion of last week meeting with ornithologists, anglers, wildlife experts and park staff from both sides of the border. And I met Marian Stranak, the superintendent of Point Pelee National Park, which is responsible for Middle Island. To cormorant lovers and deep ecologists, she is the harbinger of death.
It’s clearly a role that makes her uncomfortable. When I ask how it feels to be in this position, as the person who makes the call for the cull, the strain is clearly visible in her eyes. There are some dark days, she says, and that’s clearly an understatement. She can’t even bring herself to use terms such as “shoot” or “kill,” instead repeating the phrase “actively manage.”
I couldn’t go to Middle Island to witness the beginning of the carnage. Shooting for the day was over when I got to Pelee Island, and the “active management” program gives the island a day of rest. There are egrets and herons nesting on the island, and nobody wants the stress to get to them. It’s not their fault.
Instead, we sail out to East Sister Island. It’s owned by the province and I’m accompanied by a researcher from the Ministry of Natural Resources. East Sister shares Middle Island’s Carolinian forest environment. The Carolinian is a southern deciduous forest area with hackberry and black oak. It never covered a wide swath of Canada, and very little remains intact today. This forest, not the complaints of the commercial fishing industry, is the reason why the cormorants shall die.
Cormorants here nest in trees. And they’re killing the trees. And their poop and vomit, which hit the forest floor in alarming and legendary quantities, are turning the soil acid and killing off the undergrowth.
East Sister used to be lush, I am told by the charter boat captain who has ferried us here. He used to bring people out for picnics. Today, nobody comes. The island has a post-holocaust look to it. The ground is white with guano. The trees are bare and will remain so despite the coming of summer. Walking among the trees, the landscape is unreal. Doctor Who has never been anywhere like this.
It is crystal clear what is happening on this island. I start to understand why Marian Stranak feels she has no choice but to make her difficult decisions. It certainly does look as though the island’s ecosystem has already been destroyed, and that only ridding it of much of the cormorant population would bring it back. I start to understand why some people detest cormorants.
Then one of them drops a load of guano directly into the hood of a fellow journalist. And I start to appreciate these fishy birds all over again.