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Cormorant Control Needed to Save Reelfoot's Iconic Cypress Trees

Unlike many anglers, Mike Hayes doesn't  see cormorants as a threat because they eat so many fish.

 "Fish populations can come back, and, besides, there usually are enough trash fish around for them to eat," said the man whose family owns Blue Bank Resort on Reelfoot Lake, an iconic cypress-filled fishery that formed when the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-12 redirected the Mississippi River into a sunken portion of western Tennessee.

But make no mistake, he is fearful of the consequences, if states aren't once again allowed to cull these fish-eating birds. Based on lawsuits filed by environmental groups, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., recently halted a program in which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issues permits for states to kill up to 160,000 double-crested cormorants annually.

Hayes' concern is based on what he sees out his back door daily: Vast numbers of roosting cormorants are killing trees and other aquatic vegetation with their acidic excrement that also degrades water quality. With their hook-tipped beaks, they also strip bark to build nests.

"In five years (if controls are not implemented), we're going to lose all of these trees, and many of them are 200 to 600 years old," he said. "They were here when the lake flooded. They survived back then because they already were so tall. And, once they're gone, unlike the fish, they can never come back.

"What makes it so bad is that once these birds kill trees in one area, they move on to another. Right now, they're killing groups of trees in some of the most fished areas.

"I can't imagine Reelfoot Lake without cypress trees, but, it could happen."

In nearby Kentucky, meanwhile, resource managers no longer are allowed to kill 300 cormorants annually in a population  that is damaging trees on Kentucky and Barkley Lakes.

And Hayes said that since he publicized the threat at Reelfoot, he has received calls  from people all over the country who share his concerns about cormorants destroying  ecosystems. "We're losing a whole lot of habitat," he said.

Some of it is being lost on islands  in Vermont's Lake Champlain, where biologists were not allowed this summer to shoot the birds or oil their eggs to keep them from hatching. "It will not take very long for the number (of cormorants) to double without some active management," said Mark Scott of the Vermont Department of fish and Wildlife.

"They nest in very large numbers, and they kill trees on islands in the lake," said Dave Capan, who has been managing the cormorant program on the Four Brothers Islands. "There are at least five or six islands in this lake that have lost most of their trees and vegetation."

Reporting from the Les Cheneaux Islands on Lake Huron, Peter Payette of Michigan Radio said, "People are pretty worried. About 20 years ago, the number of cormorants on the islands exploded."

On Lake Erie, a cormorant colony of 20,000 has obliterated about 40 percent of  the tree canopy on Middle Island.

And on the Canadian side of Lake Ontario, leafless trees on islands near Amherstview, Ontario, stand as mute testimony to the damage inflicted by cormorants, which also are a protected species there. As Hayes and others press for action in the U.S., members of Parliament are seeking a change to the law  that would allow hunting of cormorants.

In South Carolina's Santee-Cooper, another system rich with cypress trees, sanctioned shooters killed 26,000 birds in two years, but general feeling among anglers was that the hunt had "zero impact" on protecting habitat.

Back at Reelfoot, Hayes said that the cormorant destruction "slipped up on us" about five years ago, and, within three, skeleton trunks stood in place of lush, green trees that were there "long before Davy Crockett ."

He emphasized that he will continue to work with the state in hopes of saving Reelfoot.

"I have been working with the TWRA (Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency)," he said. "They have been right with us on this.

"I have no problem with the TWRA. They are trying to get permits but the problem is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife will not issue them. We have to find the right person who can touch the right button and get us the permit we need."

What Happened?

Why is the FWS no longer allowed to issue depredation orders for states to control their cormorant populations? It's complicated, according to Craig Bonds, Inland Fisheries Division Director for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD).

"A group of bird conservationists and environmental activists sued U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in federal court over its continue of depredation orders for double-crested cormorants on the grounds that the Service violated the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) and that it's environmental assessment was deficient," he explained.

The court agreed with the plaintiffs, which includes Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), and stopped the program, which included giving the states the authority to issue permits to "sub-permittees" (private permit holders).

Now PEER and the other plaintiffs want FWS to go through a lengthy environmental impact process.  The agency, however, hopes that by simply reviewing its existing and less complicated current assessment it can comply with NEPA and start issuing permits later this year.

"In the meantime, the TPWD cormorant depredation permits were invalidated by the court order and individuals have to seek an individual permit with the USFWS," Bonds said. "This is basically the same process people had to go through prior to 2004, when TPWD (and other state agencies) was granted the authority to issue its own permits."

Why Are Cormorants Protected?

Double-crested cormorants, along with 800 other species, are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and subsequent amendments. Intent then was to protect these birds that migrated across Canada and the U.S. from commercial overharvest.

But that did nothing to protect them and other fish-eating birds from the devastating effects of the pesticide DDT, and populations plummeted. By the late 1950s, scientists noticed  diminished reproduction in brown pelicans, eagles, cormorants, and other birds, with cause traced to high concentrations of the pesticide in their systems. DDT didn't kill the birds, but rather altered the birds' calcium metabolism so that their eggs thinned and couldn't support the weight of incubating parents.

But fish-eating birds made a hearty comeback when the pesticide was banned, and, for cormorants at least, thousands of reservoirs built on the nation's river systems provided far more habitat and forage than they had historically.  With that combination,  populations exploded during the 1970s and 1980s, especially on the Great Lakes. And spreading out from there, they've established huge colonies all the way down to the Gulf Coast.

Mostly, they've been vilified for eating too many fish, and, in some cases, that accusation has been justified.  Much of the damage that they do to fish populations, however, is centered around hatcheries and put-and-take stockings of sport fish, especially trout.

Cormorants eat more of his Arkansas farm's fish than any other birds, according to Mike Freeze, president of the National Aquaculture Association. He added that he has at least two employees working full-time during winter to protect the fish in his 1,000 acres of ponds.

"We've got to have some kind of relief by October," he added. "That's when these hordes descend on us."

By contrast, stomach analysis of 214 cormorants killed in Kentucky showed that shad made up 56 percent of the diet, according to Fisheries Chief Ron Brooks. Small sunfish accounted for 28 and Asian carp 6, with crappie just 0.37 percent.

(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)


Does Catch-and-Release Help Sustain Bass Fisheries?

Releasing a bass makes us feel good. But does catch-and-release really help sustain fisheries?

Based on results from a tagging study a few years ago at Texas’ Amon Carter, a 1,539 acre fishery north of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

Sixty-three percent of 786 tagged bass were taken. In other words, fishermen caught nearly 500 of those fish.

 Forty-three percent were weighed in by tournament anglers. Another 16.3 percent was caught and released by recreational fishermen, with just 3.7 percent harvested.

There’s plenty more evidence too.

Nearly 75 percent of tagged fish were caught at Florida’s Lake Santa Fe.

“Another study we did on Rodman years ago was 40 percent caught by anglers,” said Mike Allen, professor of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences at the University of Florida.

On Tennessee’s Norris Reservoir, meanwhile, the “adjusted annual angler catch rate” for tagged largemouth bass was 47 percent in 1996 and 34 percent in 1997.

And Jacob Westhoff encountered some powerful anecdotal evidence while doing a smallmouth telemetry study on the Jacks Fork River for the Missouri Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit. Eighteen of the 33 bronzebacks with transmitters were caught by anglers.

“Also of note, is that eight of our fish were caught by a single angler in one day during the winter at the confluence of Alley Spring and the Jacks Fork River,” he said.

Clearly, the evidence is there to support the wisdom of catch-and-release--- and more.

“Those findings highlight the importance of proper fish care,” said Randy Myers, a fisheries biologist for Texas Parks and Wildlife.

But he is quick to add that not all bass fisheries reveal such dramatic findings. For example, just 38 percent of more than 6,000 tagged fish were caught on Sam Rayburn, a lake more than 70 times the size of Carter.

Allen added that the statewide estimate for Florida lakes is about 20 percent.

“It obviously varies widely among water bodies and probably among regions,” he added. “In Florida, we have so many lakes. It’s probably higher in states without as many fishing sites.”

Allen’s point is important. The percentage of a bass population caught ties directly to angling pressure. At Amon Carter, tournament and recreational effort was a combined 14 hours per acre, while it was 5.2 at Rayburn. And in Florida, drought had reduced accessible areas at other fisheries, likely forcing more anglers than normal to fish Santa Fe.

Other factors can influence how great a percentage is caught as well.

“Rayburn has better habitat than Carter,” Myers said. “Overall, it’s a better lake for bass production.”

Still, angling pressure is a top consideration for resource managers in maintaining healthy bass fisheries. That’s why Myers is hopeful that removal of a protective slot at Ray Roberts will attract tournaments away from Carter.

“At Carter, more than half of the effort was from tournament anglers,” he said. “Because they are so popular, we have to think long and hard about restrictions that would limit tournaments. But if 50 percent of tournament-retained fish die (at Carter) it would have some impact on the fishery.”

Consequently, how fish are cared for before they are released also is a concern for Myers and other fisheries managers.

“If a fish is gilling, lots of experienced anglers still assume that it will live,” Myers said. “But that’s not always true. Some of those fish do die.”

The Texas biologist pointed to statistics gathered as part of a fizzing study during five tournaments at Lake Amistad in 2009.

On days when the water temperature was in the 50s and 60s, mortality, both immediate and delayed, was less than 10 percent. On a day when the temperature was 79 to 80, total mortality was 23 percent and delayed 18.3. And, most sobering, when the temperature was 83, total mortality was 50.8 percent and delayed 42.1.

“What we saw at Amistad is that 75 degrees is the critical temperature for bass health in a livewell,” he said. “That high mortality was strictly related to water temperature.”


House Approves Financial Help for Florida's Water Pollution Crisis

Legislation was passed in the U.S. House of Representatives this week that could help alleviate the environmental crisis plaguing Florida's coastal waters, Lake Okeechobee, the Everglades, and, by extension, Florida Bay.

In passing the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), the House by an overwhelming 399-25 vote included $1.9 billion in critical funding for the Central Everglades Planning Project, as well as authorization for waterway access improvements and the use of natural infrastructure wherever possible.

In a nutshell, coastal waters on both sides of the state have been damaged by nutrient-rich waters discharged out of Okeechobee, which feed massive blue-green algal blooms. Before man's interference, high water at the Big O flowed naturally south in the Everglades, where it was filtered, even as it sustained life there. From there, it provided vital fresh water to Florida Bay.

But levees were built to prevent flooding around the lake and allow for development south of it. And that required discharging the water east and west.

“The sportfishing industry recognizes that it is vital for the Florida Everglades to receive funding as soon as possible to expedite the implementation of multi-year projects that will help fix the water quality and water management challenges that plague south Florida,” said American Sportfishing Association Government Affairs Vice President Scott Gudes. “These projects have been through an extensive review process and will provide significant environmental benefits by moving more water south from Lake Okeechobee. We encourage Congress to conference quickly on a final bill so that appropriations and construction can begin as soon as possible.”  Gary Jennings, Keep Florida Fishing manager, added, “These projects will bring much-needed relief to our state’s estuary systems.

"Florida is the Fishing Capital of the World, and we thank lawmakers in the U.S. House and Senate for recognizing the urgent need for measures that will have a major positive impact on fisheries conservation, ecosystem restoration and water quality.”

In a joint statement, Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and ranking member Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) expressed confidence that reconciling the differing versions of WRDA reauthorization in conference will be relatively easy.

"The strong, bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives is a clear sign that we can reconcile the House and Senate bills swiftly and smoothly," they said.


Why We Fish: Chasing Rainbows

We got up at 4:15 to be on the water at 5. Unfortunately, the fish didn’t seem to care that we were there.

Then the rain started. Not all over. Mostly to the west and a little bit overhead.

In the east, where the sun hadn’t yet moved above the horizon, the sky was mostly clear.

And then came the magic. With the sun beaming up from below the skyline, my friend Norm Klayman and I watched the formation of the most spectacular rainbow that either of us had ever seen.

Normally, I don’t bother taking photos of rainbows. Even with digital, I’ve learned that cameras just can’t do them justice.

But with this one, I had to try, even though it was far too large for me  to photograph in its entirety.

If someone had asked me to get up at 4:15 to go see a rainbow, I would have said, “No, thank you. I’ve seen plenty of them.”

Yet I’m always ready to get up at such hours to go fishing.  And if I hadn’t gone fishing on this morning, I would have missed a sight that I will treasure for the rest of my life.

(This is one the many experiences that inspired my book, Why We Fish. Bill Dance and others also contributed.)