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Cormorant management bill debuts in Legislature

Oregon salmon advocates believe they are inching toward developing a federally approved plan in which over-populations of fish-eating cormorants could be killed to reduce their impacts on salmon and steelhead runs.

A bill in the Oregon Legislature sponsored by Rep. Wayne Krieger, R-Gold Beach, asks the U.S. Department of the Interior to allow Oregon to join 24 other states with cormorant management programs, which could include killing some of the birds to protect out-migrating salmon and steelhead smolts in spring and fall.

The bill last week was passed out of the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Current laws allow only the hazing of cormorants in Oregon, and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has a hazing program going on in places such as the Coquille River estuary in Bandon, Alsea Bay in Waldport and the mouth of the Columbia River.

Cormorants are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and cannot be harmed or killed under federal law. ODFW is conducting population surveys to identify where they might be considered over-populated.

"This ratchets up the conversation," said Steve Beyerlin, a Gold Beach fishing guide who said he's seen hundreds of cormorants at a time work in unison along the Lower Rogue in the fall when millions of hatchery and wild chinook salmon head en masse to the ocean.

"It would be nice to see 20 cormorants in the bay instead of 250," Beyerlin said. "I think this is part of the process, getting us into position to do something about it."

Cormorants are large seabirds that inhabit Oregon estuaries in spring and summer. Over the years they have expanded inland along certain rivers, including the Rogue. They can eat up to 2 pounds of fish a day, making them a threat to the survival of out-bound salmon and steelhead smolts.

The hazing programs, which are conducted largely by volunteers, target cormorants that intercept wild and hatchery coho smolts migrating to the ocean in April and May.

Under the program, volunteers drive at the birds in small boats while occasionally firing pyrotechnics toward them, according to ODFW. The hazing is done largely by coastal fishing groups, with ODFW providing oversight and paying for boat fuel, the agency said.

Cormorants have more of a presence in the Lower Rogue bay in the fall, when chinook smolts are moving through, said Todd Confer, ODFW's Gold Beach District fish biologist.

The fall migration includes 1.6 million smolts released from Cole Rivers Hatchery for the 157-mile trip to the Pacific.

"We don't really see (coho predation) as a potential issue as much as the predation of chinook smolts in the fall," Confer said.

Many of the cormorants fishing the Lower Rogue in late summer and fall include fledglings and immature transient birds that show up just as the chinook make their way downstream, Confer said.

The Lower Rogue could be part of the hazing program, but there is only a small amount of money to cover some expenses for volunteers who take it on, Confer said.

Beyerlin said local anglers looked at the hazing program but declined to take part because of the time, amount of detailed reporting, and fear it would take away from the fall sea-lion hazing program that scares off pinnipeds known to snatch salmon off the lines of bay anglers. Sea-lion hazing occurs at the same time as the chinook smolt migration.

Beyerlin said he would like to see cormorants hazed by ODFW along the Rogue in the fall, as well as during the spring nesting season.

"I think it would be a good thing to encourage them to set up elsewhere," Beyerlin said.