COLUMBIA, SC — South Carolina hunters killed 11,653 double-crested cormorants on Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie in one month this winter in an effort to reduce the number of the fish-eating birds on the lakes.
One hunter, whose name was not made public, reported killing 278 himself, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, which released the information to The State newspaper on Friday.
While hunters jumped at their first chance to shoot the long-necked, black birds, the Audubon Society screamed in protest at the results.
“That’s a horrific number,” said Norman Brunswig, Audubon’s South Carolina director. “It’s not a defensible action. I think DNR got bullied into doing this and didn’t know how to get out of it, and a whole lot of birds died.”
Longtime anglers on the lake pushed their state representatives to convince DNR to do something about the rising populations of cormorants, who they claim eat enough bait fish to impact the game fish populations. Only one small scientific study has been done on the impact of cormorants on the Santee Cooper lakes, and it was done during a severe drought. That study found an average of eight fish in the gut of cormorants.
That study estimated there were 6,000 cormorants on the lakes in 2008, but anglers say the number has grown to closer to 25,000 in recent years.
A proviso in last year’s agency budget made it difficult for DNR to turn down the request to set up a special cormorant hunting season. Traditionally, cormorants are a non-game, migratory species, and hunting them has been illegal. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in recent years has approved special programs to reduce the cormorant population if states requested permission.
In most other states, those programs allow only wildlife officers and American Indians to shoot the birds.
In South Carolina, DNR didn’t have the manpower to make a dent in the cormorant population, so it tried a different approach. Hunters who went through a short training program and agreed to strict regulations were allowed to kill the birds only on Lake Marion and Lake Moultrie, and only from Feb. 2-March 1.
DNR leaders were stunned when nearly 800 people showed up at the first training session. The 1,225 people who eventually were issued permits surpassed agency estimates “by three- or four-fold,” according to Derrell Shipes, chief of wildlife statewide projects for the agency.
Many anglers seemed eager to help reduce the cormorant numbers, but only 40 percent of the permit-holders returned the required hunt record documents by the March 31 deadline, Shipes said. Those who didn’t record their hunting hours and success rate won’t be allowed to get permits if there’s another hunt next year.
Another proviso by Rep. Phillip Lowe, R-Florence, in the 2014-15 budget compels DNR to allow a cormorant hunt next year. If there is a 2015 hunt, Shipes expects it will be set up differently. The agency staff has to look at what about the first season worked well, and what didn’t.
More importantly, wildlife biologists will try to determine “how significant is that number (of birds being killed), and what will be its impact,” Shipes said.
Brunswig wishes someone would do a large scientific study on the impact of cormorants on the fishery. He’s certain it would prove “they’re slaughtering a non-game species for no good reason.”
The 496 hunters who returned information forms spent 42,748 hours in the field and averaged killing 23.5 cormorants in the one-month season.
The South Carolina numbers are much higher than in specially permitted hunts in other states which rely on wildlife officers and American Indian tribes. Hunts in Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin combined killed 21,312 cormorants in 2013, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Wildlife officials in Oregon and Texas already have contacted South Carolina to ask about details of the local hunt as they consider how to set up hunts in their states, Shipes said.