double-crested cormorant

Double-crested cormorants are being blamed for historical declines of Great Lakes fish in Ontario

We must stop scapegoating other species for our mistakes

David Suzuki

David Suzuki is the host of the CBC’s The Nature of Things and author of more than 30 books on ecology (with files from Rachel Plotkin).

Blame culture is rampant in wildlife management. Across Canada, governments are implementing culling programs, blaming predators for declining wildlife populations, even though humans are the problem.

Nature is complex. It’s difficult to determine whether culling even works, and some studies show tampering with nature by isolating and killing one species can do more harm than good.

Yet on July 31, the Ontario government announced a 106-day fall hunt on double-crested cormorants starting Sept. 15, allowing hunters to take 15 birds daily with no obligation to report kills and no provincial oversight of total birds killed. The hunt is likely a result of lobbying.

“Ontario sport and commercial fishermen have expressed concerns that increasing DCCO [double-crested cormorants] numbers are having adverse effects on fish stocks and that steps should be taken to control cormorant populations,” states the province’s cormorants management review.

The same review, though, finds cormorants haven’t been the main cause of dwindling fish populations.

“Historical declines in the Great Lakes fish populations that led to the DCCO control program appear to have been caused by overfishing, invasion by sea lamprey, and loss of aquatic habitat (e.g., loss of spawning grounds and contamination by pesticides and other toxic chemicals).”

Along the Pacific Coast, seals and sea lions are often blamed for declining salmon populations. The U.S. recently granted permission for hundreds of sea lions to be killed. According to a spokesperson, Fisheries and Oceans Canada is considering similar actions here. But sea lions and seals eat dozens of other fish.

More than 100 marine predators eat salmon. According to David Suzuki Foundation senior scientist Scott Wallace, “There are about 140 different species in the ocean that eat salmon, and we’ve chosen to highlight seals and sea lions. There’s a long history of villainizing and scapegoating seals and sea lions, but I think it’s quite short-sighted to think that we can manipulate an ecosystem to enhance a single species.”

In Alberta and B.C., governments have sanctioned and paid to kill wolves, bears and cougars in efforts to keep imperilled caribou herds alive. Research shows these culls are having “no detectable effect” on recovering caribou. It’s true that wolves and other predators are affecting struggling caribou populations, but it’s mainly because roads and other industrial disturbances increase overall predator success by providing sight lines and travel corridors.

Industrial activity is the primary cause of boreal woodland caribou decline, but wolves and other predators are taking the hit.

The role of any animal within its ecological niche is far more complicated than the single predator-prey interaction that culling purportedly tries to control.

Our blame game is growing tired. Humans must grow up, take responsibility and stop scapegoating other species for our mistakes.

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