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The 'fishermen' of the Niagara River

by jmaloni
Sat, Jun 16th 2012 07:00 am

by Mark Daul

Outdoors in Niagara

The "Nagara" River is a 103-mile-long river in Japan, and it is a popular river like our own famous Niagara River. In Japan there is also an ancient method of fishing the Nagara, and that is with a diving, fish-eating bird - the cormorant.

Much like cormorants we have around here, cormorant fishing is an ancient method of fishing in Japan and it still continues today, like it has been done for at least 1,300 years by Japanese "fish masters." But is limited. Once reserved for the royalty of Japan, it has turned out to be a big tourist attraction in the nearby city of Gifu, Japan, where they have a cormorant festival that lasts from May to October.

The cormorant is a very large water bird, and the method used to catch fish has the fisherman or "fish master" putting a small metal ring around the bird's neck, then a thin rope tied to that, which makes a type of leash. The fish master and his crew go out at night with a bright fire made of pinewood, which provides light on the front of their boat, and the fire attracts fish. The fish master puts his birds in the water and starts fishing with up to 12 birds at a time. The birds go down, looking for something to eat. They find the fish, catch them, and then these birds are pulled back up with a neck full of fish.

That metal ring that's clipped on the neck is intended to prevent any fish from going down to the bird's stomach. The 'fish master' now reaches in and takes the fish away, tosses them in a basket and sends his fish catchers back down for more. In Japan these birds are well cared for and in some cases, considered as house pets. They a have longevity in captivity of 15 to 20 years. In the wild, it is estimated four to five years.

The double-crested cormorant is the one we are familiar with. In the 1940s and into the 1950s, cormorant populations were big, but started to decline shortly after World War II when DDT was brought home after the war effort and it was used as for agriculture pesticides domestically. It was DDT that saved so many lives from malaria during the war overseas. But at home it decimated plenty of our wildlife, such as pheasants and in cormorants, where it was found to cause cancer.

DDT was banned in 1972 in the U.S. and much of the rest of the world, and then shortly after the ban cormorants made a comeback. With federal protection, the species has expanded to the point where they are now considered a nuisance. Pheasants didn't do as well. Aquaculture ponds are suspected as another reason for the population explosion of the cormorants. They've become such a nuisance with aquaculture farmers that they are permitted to shoot them under strict federal regulations.

May arrived and cormorants are again here in hoards. These migrating birds come in from the Mississippi Delta or anywhere south or west where the water doesn't freeze over in the winter. They come in groups of hundreds, sometimes thousands, taking up nesting anywhere high above water such as in trees, power lines, or towers, like the towers that cross the river at Grand Island from the mainland, or on Strawberry and Motor islands in the upper river. On Lake Ontario or the Niagara River you will see them flying low, close to the water searching for a meal going east to west and vice versa. They can be easily identified in flight. The long necks and nearly black appearance is a dead giveaway.

I claim the reason they fly so close to the water is they can find fish by the smell of a school of fish rising from the water. I have observed them flying like a bat out of hell, then the whole flock seems like it puts on the brakes, lands on the water, and then starts diving. In minutes seagulls arrive, sometimes traveling with the flock, then they start grabbing whatever scraps the cormorants drop. Seagulls do not dive; they eat whatever food is on the surface of the water.

If you are close enough to this circus, you will hear the gulls screeching and talking, and the cormorants splashing on the water. It is a real feeding frenzy. Then, all of a sudden, they all take off on another mission, until they find another dinner waiting for them. I don't know how fast they fly, but they are as fast as a goose under full power.

Some will argue these birds don't have a sense of smell, but they do, look it up!

Some years back, I wrote an article in a local publication about cormorants, and how they caused the destruction of our local fish populations. The story was around the time when the cormorant population was starting to cause problems locally, not only gorging on our fish populations, but the destruction of trees and the vegetation around them. In the St. Lawrence River, it got to be so bad that Little Galloo Island on that river was stripped of all vegetation in a couple of short years, and now it is just a barren rock. The birds found a home there, and being a colony of fish eaters, their guano (excrement) is highly acidic, and the trees lost their foliage, as did all the vegetation, leaving the island barren.

St. Lawrence Seaway area sportsmen were upset because these creatures were a federally protected water bird, and in 1998, five friends decided to take matters in their own hands regardless of the law. They went out and shot 850 cormorants to reduce the local population that were destroying the foliage and their fishing grounds. They got caught, paid very heavy fines, paid heavily for lawyers, lost hunting privileges, and spent six months under house arrest, and to top that off, they had to pay $5,000 each to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Mainland residents and fishing-related businesses cheered their actions because the birds were affecting their incomes as their fishing industry was being taken over by these nuisance birds. The story was all around the state at the time, and the shooters spent time before their court date trying to muster the sympathies of other sportsmen, and raising money to pay the fines. There were videos of these birds hunting, and the film showed how a flock of them would surround a school of fish, drive them into a shallow cove of the river and start diving for the food, reducing fish populations drastically. Like all cormorants, the double-crested dives to find its prey as deep as 40 feet! They love to eat, and will eat 25 percent of their weight every day or until their stomachs get so full they have to stop feeding. They eat fish from 2 to 6 inches, and are known to eat fish as big as 16 inches.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have seriously been looking at this problem. Cormorants are colonial nesters, and the USFW has extended to other agencies to test control cormorants by oiling their eggs with vegetable oil or a mixture of formaldehyde and soap. By oiling the eggs, it prevents them from hatching, making the nesting bird think that hatching is still yet to come, thus preventing the reproduction cycle. Good thinking, huh?

If you are wondering, no, there is no hunting season on these guys. Besides, who would want to eat something that ate only fish and the bird itself stunk like un-refrigerated fish. Cormorant colonies themselves smell atrocious. If you think about it, those fishermen who wanted to take control of these birds on Little Galloo Island did us all a favor with their actions by energizing the Wildlife Service into action, and taking a second look at this overpopulation situation, even if it is years late in coming.

Comments/suggestions, email me at [email protected] or Niagara Frontier Publications at [email protected].

Now that summer is near fish are on the move. So don't forget to take a kid fishing!

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