Cormorants in the Crosshairs

[UPDATE: Ticket prices for Seabird double bill lowered $10 per person, $15 for two ]

In May of this year, United States Department of Agriculture-Wildlife Services (USDA-WS) agents began killing nesting Double-crested Cormorants  (Phalacrocorax auritus) and oiling their eggs at East Sand Island, near the mouth of the Columbia River. East Sand Island is home to the biggest colony of these large, black seabirds in North America, with approximately 14,000 breeding pairs. The killing is being done by Wildlife Services at the behest of  the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)  with the goal of reducing the cormorants’ population at that location by two-thirds.1


What does the Army Corps of Engineers hope to gain by killing cormorants? It is said that the “cull” of these birds is to protect the salmon runs of the Columbia River. Cormorants eat fish. Including the smolt of threatened or endangered species such as the distinct population group of lower Columbia Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss).

In the 20th century over 60 dams were built in the Columbia river watershed, many by the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). There is an average of one dam for every 72 miles of river.

While these dams irrigate and electrify the west, they also are the major threat, along with forestry, to western salmonids – the family of fish that includes salmon and Steelhead.2 Dams, as one can easily imagine, are an impassable barrier to the thousands of small streams these fish require for spawning.

As an example, before European or American colonists arrived in the Pacific Northwest, it is estimated that 3 million Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) entered this watershed through the mouth of the Columbia river each year. In 2014, just over 600,000 Sockeye returned, which was the largest run since 1938, when the Bonneville Dam was built.3

450px-ColumbiarivermapThe fourth largest river in North America by volume, the relatively steep gradient and high flow of the Columbia river made it irrestible to harness. The cost to the environment, and especially this watershed’s fish, has been very steep.

The decision to kill Double-crested Cormorants because of their supposed threat to salmonid recovery is hotly contested by environment and wildlife advocates. The Audubon Society of Portland filed a suit right before the shooting began alleging that USACE “is scapegoating cormorants for salmon declines in order to divert attention from the primary cause of salmon decline, the Corps’ ongoing failure to modify the manner in which it operates the Columbia River Hydropower System.”4 (for more on historical scapegoating of Cormorants, please read this excellent article published in Natural History magazine, To Kill a Cormorant.)

DCCO release 15 SEP 14 - 05Double-crested Cormorant upon release back to the wild after receivng treatment at Humboldt Wildlife Care Center (photo: Laura Corsiglia/BAX)

In early August, Portland Audubon released United States Fish and Wildlife documents that show that at least some government biologists were well aware, long before the so-called cull was approved, that such a slaughter of birds would have no impact on salmonid population.5

In support of Portland Audubon, documentary filmmaker Judy Irving (The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Pelican Dreams) has made a short film, Cormorants in the Crosshairs, on this topic, collaborating with Bird Ally X co-founder/co-director Marie Travers. The film will premiere this Wednesday, August 19, in Portland, double billed with Pelican Dreams.

Questions from the audience will follow for Irving, Bob Sallinger of Portland Audubon, and another BAX co-founder/director, Monte Merrick, whose work is featured in Pelican Dreams.

If you’re in Portland on the 19th, please come out- all proceeds will benefit The Audubon Society of Portland to support their effort to protect these beautiful and strong birds, who’ve evolved with Salmon and Steelhead over millions of years.


A Seabird Double Bill poster

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