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NEWSFLASH: Cormorants eat fish!

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I’ve been the RSPB’s Conservation Director since May 2011. As I settle into the job, I’ll be blogging on all the big conservation topics and providing an inside view of our conservation projects. I hope you enjoy reading it and feel inspired to join in t

NEWSFLASH: Cormorants eat fish!

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Let's get this on the record, I think the Angling Trust does a great job and I’m happy we work so closely with them on so many watery issues through the Blueprint for Water. But like most friends they do seem to have peculiar peccadilloes, and in the Angling Trust’s case its their single minded pursuit of the cormorant where we might fall out.

Of course, this bird eats fish.  In fact, like some other species of bird – kingfishers and ospreys, to name but two – this bird likes eating fish so much, it eats them pretty much to the exclusion of all else.  It won’t surprise you, then, to learn (if you didn’t know already) that, like the kingfisher and osprey, this bird is extremely good at fishing.  

Unfortunately, unlike that of the kingfisher and osprey, the fishing prowess of this particular bird – the cormorant – is not universally admired.  To a cormorant, an angling lake stocked full of fish is much like a bird table to a blue tit – a feast to be harvested.  Understandably this can make the cormorant an unwelcome visitor to such fisheries, where income is reliant on the availability of catchable fish. 

1,779 cormorants were particularly unwelcome in England in 2010.   That’s how many were shot under licence that year to prevent serious damage to fisheries and inland waters.  Does that number surprise you?  Did you know that cormorants can be shot, legally, to protect the interests of fisheries?

They can.  Acknowledging that these otherwise protected birds can, in some circumstances, cause serious damage to some fisheries, both European and domestic law permit the killing of cormorants provided certain conditions are met.  To my mind, these conditions are perfectly reasonable – there must be a genuine problem to resolve, there must be no other satisfactory solution (to killing) available, killing must present an effective solution, and killing must not have an adverse effect on the conservation status of the species in question.  In short, killing is an action of last resort, the justification of which can only be determined on a case-by-case basis.     

In England, when it comes to cormorants, these principles of wildlife licensing are not applied as rigorously as we would like.  In 2004, the evidence requirements were relaxed to such an extent that fishery managers need only demonstrate the presence of cormorants at a fishery to qualify as (potentially) suffering serious damage due to cormorants.  This is a markedly different – i.e. decidedly more lenient – licensing approach to that adopted for other bird species in England (and the rest of the UK).

Isn’t it extraordinary, then, that there are calls to make it even easier to kill cormorants?  This species has always been present inland in Britain – the increase in the inland population has in fact occurred over many years, reflecting a recovery from the effects of historical persecution (and, quite probably, the increase in attractive feeding sites stocked with fish!)  As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog, a review is underway in England of the licensing regime for fish-eating birds, including cormorants.  We hope that in deciding the future of this native species, Defra takes heed of its own research, which found no case for large-scale control of this bird.  Furthermore, it found that non-lethal approaches to reducing predation by cormorants, such as fish refuges, exist and are effective.  When such sustainable, non-contentious measures are available, why should anyone reach for the gun?

While we will continue to defend the right and proper protection offered to the cormorant I hope we can continue to work with the Angling Trust on the things that really matter to rivers and fisheries like unsustainable abstraction drought and pollution.

What do you think?

It would be great to hear your views.

Comments
  • Sooty - of course, I accept that Cormorants feed on rivers and eat 'wild bred' fish.  In fact, I'm sure they can't tell the difference between 'wild bred' fish and those that have been introduced in large numbers to lakes, ponds and reservoirs.  

    Would you accept, though, that the increase in the numbers of Cormorants results at least in part from the increase in the available food supply that is represented by fish stocks introduced at unnaturally high levels?

    I would suggest that the normal balance between predators and prey, where the numbers of both fluctuate in line with each other, has been severely upset and that it is because stocking of lakes provides a never diminishing food supply that Cormorant numbers have increased and will continue to increase.

    Martin has quoted the number of Cormorants shot under licence in England in 2010 and no doubt many more were shot illegally.  And this has been going on for how long?  25/30 years?  And the situation remains the same!  It might make the owners of fisheries feel better to shoot a few Cormorants but it doesn't seem to be the answer to the problem.

    I'm not anti-angler, I'm not anti-fish, I am pro-Cormorant.

  • PeterD ---of course you are right in part but not every lake or pond or river(oh yes they definitely go on rivers)are artificially stocked and my view is that wild bred fish deserve if need be protection.Certainly Dorset's population of Cormorants is too high to majority opinion.

    Culling when needed is carried out by the best conservation bodies and we must not say one species is more important than another.

    I am not pro angler just pro fish.

  • Sooty - I'm not aware of any documented instance of Cormorants having a serious impact on naturally occurring fish populations.  The problem we have now is that lakes are being artificially stocked with fish and it's hardly surprising that we have so many Cormorants coming inland.  How many Goldfinches came into gardens before people started feeding them nyger seed?  Birds quickly learn to exploit new sources of food.  It surely isn't acceptable to keep providing food and then shooting those birds that are attracted to it.

  • Thanks Boris and Redkite and good to meet you Peter D!

    Sooty - it was certainly the case that the cormorant was almost exclusively a coastal breeder in the UK until the early 1980s but they did fly and fish inland.  Yes, increases were recorded to the mid 1990s but this was followed by stabilisation or slight decline in numbers.

  • Well in this case Martin I look at things differently and I am not a angler so to me wild fish are being killed by a bird that has dramatically increased in numbers inland which is where I would absolutely have to disagree with you about they have always been a inland bird.

    We live only 30 miles from the coast and remember in the late 70s probably the first Cormorant was seen locally and was so rare as to make it in local paper and of course being close to coast this area was one of the first in my opinion to become colonised by them.

  • I agree with all you say Martin and with the two very good comments above.

  • Your Blue Tit analogy seems to me to be absolutely right.  People who provide artificially high supplies of food by stocking lakes with fish shouldn't be surprised to find that they attract birds that want to eat them.  Nor should they then be allowed to shoot those birds, particularly when other remedies are available.  The angling lobby has been successful over the last 25/30 years in demonising the Cormorant (the 'black plague') and pressuring Defra and its predecessors that have been responsible for licencing.  I hope the RSPB will stand firm against any proposals that might worsen the current situation which to my mind is already unacceptable.

  • Spot on Martin, these birds are being victimised and used as a scapegoat for the range of key water management issues that are far more important for the health of fisheries. Interesting that this attack is being launched just as we seem to be heading for a severe drought.  You are right to work with angling organisations on water policy issues but also right to explain that persecuting the cormorant is pointless and misguided. They are part of our natural environment just as much as herons, kingfishers and water voles.   The suggestion on the petition that cormorants are affecting bittern and kingfisher populations is risable.