Oregon studies if seabirds eating protected salmon

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is killing sea birds on the Oregon Coast to see if they are eating protected salmon.

Department spokesman Rick Swart said Monday that up to 150 cormorants will be killed this year so biologists can look inside their stomachs to see if they are eating salmon, and if any of the salmon are protected by the Endangered Species Act. The first cormorant was taken on the Umpqua estuary last week. About 4,000 cormorants nest on the Oregon Coast at the Tillamook, Umpqua and Rogue estuaries.

It’s the latest case of wildlife officers killing predators to protect a threatened or endangered species. For years, the department has killed sea lions that eat threatened and endangered salmon at Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. Similar studies have found cormorants at the mouth of the Columbia River eat 15 percent of the millions of young salmon and steelhead migrating to the ocean.

Under pressure from sport fishing groups, the department asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year for a permit to reduce the number of cormorants on the coast because they eat baby salmon and steelhead migrating to the ocean.

The federal agency asked for information to back up the request, and granted a research permit allowing the department to shoot 50 cormorants each on the Rogue, Umpqua and Tillamook estuaries for two years running.

Volunteers have been chasing cormorants with boats and firecrackers to reduce the number of salmon they eat.

Swart said department personnel do the shooting and check the birds’ stomachs. If the contents are not clearly salmon, they are sent to a lab at Oregon State University for identification, and sometimes DNA analysis.

Once considered a nuisance bird, cormorants were added to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1972, the same year the pesticide DDT was banned.

Current estimates are that about 70,000 cormorants live in the West between southern British Columbia, the Mexico border and the Continental Divide. About 27,000 are on Sand Island at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Swart said biologists have noticed a decline in cormorant numbers on the Oregon coast that seems to be related to an increase in bald eagles, their only feathered predator.

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