The push and pull between agricultural commerce, environmentalists and federal regulations has again moved to front burner. This time, the financial wellbeing of Southern aquaculture is at risk as the chilly weather descends and migratory double-crested cormorants close in.
“Since 1998, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) has utilized a national aquaculture depredation order to give fish farmers the legal authority to control double-crested cormorants preying on fish farms,” says Chad Causey, spokesman for Catfish Farmers of America. “A separate depredation order, first implemented in 2003, provided the same authority to control double-crested cormorant depredation concerning recreational fishing.”
Both orders are updated periodically and “require a showing that non-lethal means have been ineffective prior to any taking of birds.”
In 2014, following the renewal of the recreational order, a group known as Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) sued FWS, which is part of the Interior Department, in U.S. District Court.
“PEER asserted that adequate environmental justification was lacking in the FWS multi-state program for Cormorant management,” says Causey.
The next major development occurred last May when U.S. District Judge John Bates agreed with PEER and vacated the depredation orders.
“Although the Judge specifically mentioned in his order that FWS has the ability to issue individual permits to fish farmers to take cormorants, FWS has refused to issue these individual permits to farmers,” says Causey. “The inability of FWS to provide proper justification for the National Aquaculture Depredation Order as well as their refusal to issue individual permits has left American aquaculture without any means to protect against massive fish loses.
“In other words, the aquaculture industry was disarmed right before the fall migration and cormorants love to eat catfish like it’s a pond bank buffet.”
The concerns of fish farmers are real. Once on a pond, cormorants are known to work as a group to herd fish into an easily catchable mass.
Among non-lethal means open to producers are air-cannons and driving pond perimeters, boots-on-the-ground harassment. These work only for a short time as the birds become familiar and comfortable with the methods.
“The industry, trade groups and our allies in the U.S. Congress have urged FWS to issue individual permits as stated in the court documents,” says Causey. “The judge flat-out said that was a route to take. FWS’s response has been: ‘No, we can’t issue those permits either. We need to do an Environmental Assessment (EA) on the individual permits.’”
As the clock is ticking on the cormorant arrivals, this is cold comfort for producers. “While an EA is a lower-grade endeavor than an Environmental Impact Study (EIS), an EA can still require several months to complete,” says Causey.
In January, tens of thousands of the intelligent birds are expected to be in the Mid-South.
“Of course, we’re already well into the bird migration. American aquaculture is at serious risk of a significant financial loss caused because of the FWS’ inability to do their job.
“Farmers are already having problems with cormorants and it’s only going to get worse. The thing is, a lot of these birds don’t even migrate any more. They may be ‘migratory’ but they don’t go far as long as there’s open water and a food source.”
Currently, “farmers have no way to deal with them other than non-lethal means and basic harassment. The methods alone are insufficient to prevent severe economic losses for the industry.”
How does the USDA’s Wildlife Services play into this?
“Wildlife Services does have the ability to issue permits to control cormorants,” says Causey. “But they’ve said, in effect, ‘since FWS was sued over the permits, they’d do the same to us. We’re not using our permits and will get our NEPA up-to-date and then we’ll be more confident.’ So, that leaves farmers in the same boat.”
Is anyone fighting for the farmers?
“Yes, the congressional delegations from Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama have been very active. (Mississippi) Senator Cochran and his staff have been working to solve this issue and, just recently, (Arkansas) Senator Tom Cotton and Rep. Rick Crawford introduced legislation to fix this problem. Catfish farmers certainly appreciate these and other efforts to prevent significant losses for American aquaculture.”
On Dec. 2, Crawford filed House Resolution 6425, or the Safeguard Aquaculture Act. The bill – aimed at providing farmers a means to kill cormorants until the EA is completed – wouldn’t require the FWS to issue depredation permits.