The aquaculture industry in the eastern United States is caught in the middle while an environmental advocacy group questions the Environmental Assessment (EA) practices of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS).
US hatcheries and fish farms faced major losses this fall after a US District Court ordered the USFWS to stop issuing depredation orders that allow farmers to control cormorants that prey on
“We feel we are being punished because US Fish and Wildlife didn’t do their job,” says Mike Freeze co-owner of Keo Fish Farms in Arkansas.
Keo Fish Farms has 1000 acres of ponds, ranging from one half to 20 acres. They are the largest hatchery of hybrid stripped bass fry and fingerlings in the world. Freeze says. “We will spawn 100 to 130 million hybrid striped bass a year. We supply the US and we ship 20 to 30 million to Taiwan and other countries,” says Freeze.
“Our biggest customer has already cancelled $150,000 worth of orders for the rest of the year. He says he’s not going to put the baby fish in the ponds to let the cormorants eat them.” Freeze says. “If he can’t protect them he will just wait through the winter, and providing I don’t lose them, he will buy them next year.”
Freeze says he kills fewer than 300 birds in a bad year. “We used to be under a depredation permit specific to our farm, which was quite regulated including an inspection from USDA Wildlife services,” says Freeze. “About 12 years ago they decided to go to a depredation order which allowed us an unlimited take of the birds and then they created a second order to include sport fishing interests.”
Freeze recounts some culling practices led by state game and fish agencies (20,000 birds over two years in South Carolina for example), that would have caught the attention of environmentalists. Advocacy groups in the US routinely sue wildlife management agencies, arguing that management practices such as the cormorant depredation, are not adequately grounded in current science.
In the spring of this year, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), sued the USFWS over not completing an up-to-date environmental assessment before issuing its latest depredation order.
While the judge ruled against the USFWS and sent them off to up date their EA, he realized the impact that halting cormorant depredation would have on the aquaculture industry and he left the door open for the Service to return to the practice of issuing individual permits, Freeze explains.
“Initially we were told that USFWS would issue individual permits by the end of September and we weren’t worried because that’s what the judge allowed,” says Freeze. “In October, USFWS called and said that they can’t issue permits because the EA that supports the aquaculture depredation order would be the same one that supports the permits and the judge had found that EA lacking.” Freeze says USFWS was afraid of another suit.
“We are hopeful that the Department of Justice can talk to the judge and he will allow them to re-institute the orders or do something to assist us.”
Freeze says they have always had scare programs in place to comply with permits and support the depredation process. “We put out jack–in-the-box figures that pop up and scare them,” he says. “We have at least two men out on our farm all day long to chase birds and interrupt their feeding behavior.”
“The birds become habituated,” Freeze explains. “Some birds learn pretty quick that the propane cannon going off every 10 minutes and the guy driving around shooting off fire crackers is not going to hurt them.”
“If I have a 1000 cormorants on the farm (and that is really common) and they all eat a pound of fish, I have a 1000 pounds of fish disappearing every day,” Freeze says. Depending on the size of the fingerlings, those fish are worth between $5 and $50 a pound.
He says they are looking at stringing monofilament over the ponds to restrict landing and take off, but some of the birds squeeze underneath.
“Cormorants are very smart,” says Freeze. “A couple hundred can get together on a pond, herd all the fish into one corner and feed on them until they are full.”
“If it wasn’t my fish they were eating they would be really neat to watch,” Freeze concludes. “It’s almost like they are laughing at us. I’m afraid some farmers are going to go bankrupt.”
— Tom Walker