However, even more troubling is the fact that FWS will not agree to use an alternative solution to protect fish farms from cormorant depredation. The court that instructed FWS to suspend the depredation “order” wrote that FWS could be permitted to issue “farm-specific depredation permits” to allow control of cormorants while the “order” is under review.
In response to a legal challenge led by an organization, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, against the FWS for its five year extension of two depredation orders that had been in place since 1998, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia remanded the 2014 Aquaculture Depredation Order (2014 Order) for the double-crested cormorant and directed the FWS to expand its consideration of alternatives that had been included in its prior National Environmental Policy Act review.
In its subsequent May 2016 opinion, the Court noted the opportunity for FWS to issue individual permits and appeared to rule in favor of vacatur because of the availability of individual permits. In explaining his decision, the judge concluded that the FWS had “...not made a compelling case that rescission [of the depredation order] will cause significant consequences to aquaculture because the forecasted harms are imprecise or speculative.” In effect, the FWS failed to provide the court with details of how seriously fish farmers would be impacted without the ability to control cormorants.
The double-crested cormorant is a large water bird that feeds mainly on fish. Commercial fish ponds are stocked at high densities ranging from 2,000 to 60,000 catfish per acre and 50,000 to almost 200,000 bait fish per acre. These production practices make fish farms highly susceptible to bird predation, particularly by cormorants. A study conducted prior to the 2014 Order estimated cormorant related production losses on catfish farms in the Mississippi delta region at 18 to 20 million fingerlings per winter. A 1996 USDA survey of catfish producers indicated that birds were responsible for 37 % of catfish losses. Cormorants cause additional economic hardship by spreading fish parasites.
The 2014 Order represented smart government through collaboration between the FWS’s biological experts and the on-farm assistance provided by the USDA Wildlife Services. The 2014 Order allows commercial freshwater fish producers in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas that hold a permit issued by the FWS to take double-crested cormorants when the birds were found committing or about to commit depredation on aquaculture stocks. Farmers are required to implement non-lethal techniques as a precondition to being permitted to use lethal take under these permits. Most of the farms affected are family-owned and located in rural areas. These fish farmers pride themselves on being conscientious environmental stewards that are producing high quality food fish or bait fish for U.S. consumption.
The NAA urges all fish farmers to contact the office of their congressional representatives and request that FWS be requested to reconsider and issue depredation permits to individual farms.
Contact information for Representatives or Senators is available from http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and http://www.senate.gov/index.htm, respectively.
For additional information, please contact the National Aquaculture Association at 850-216-2400 or