Commission Agenda Item No. 11
Presenter: Craig Bonds

Control of Cormorants in Texas
March 22, 2018

I.      Executive Summary:  Staff will brief the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission on the history and status of control of cormorants in Texas.

II.     Discussion: Cormorants are considered migratory birds under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). The MBTA prohibits the taking of migratory birds unless authorized by federal regulation or permit. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) had been issuing permits for lethal take of cormorants under Depredation Orders (DO) that authorized commercial freshwater aquaculture producers in 13 states, including Texas, to take cormorants without a federal permit. In 2003, the DO was modified eliminating individual permit requirements for private individuals, corporations, and state and federal agencies. Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) began issuing permits to private lake owners and fish farmers under the authority of the USFWS DOs for aquaculture and public resources until 2016. In May 2016, the DOs were vacated by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The court determined that the USFWS did not sufficiently consider effects of the DOs on Double-crested Cormorant populations and failed to consider a reasonable range of alternatives in its 2014 Environmental Assessment (EA) review. The USFWS then reverted to issuance of individual permits, but these were halted until a new EA under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) could be performed.

In November 2017, a final EA was published that resulted in a Finding of No Significant Impact to the cormorant population for the lethal take of up to 51,571 birds per year in 37 states and the District of Columbia.  The EA allows the USFWS to issue individual permits for managing cormorants at aquaculture facilities, alleviating human health and safety concerns, protecting threatened and endangered species, and reducing damage to property.

On January 27, 2018, TPWD received notice that USFWS had approved TPWD’s application for a permit for its nine aquaculture facilities (five inland hatcheries, one research facility, and three coastal hatcheries). Approval was given to take the two species found in Texas; the Double-crested Cormorant (the most abundant species) and the Neotropic Cormorant.

Members from several states have urged the USFWS to address cormorant impacts on wild, free-swimming fish that are perceived to affect commercial and recreational fisheries in the Great Lakes and across the nation. The USFWS is beginning to work with state fish and wildlife agencies through the Flyway Councils to review the science and available data to better understand the impacts cormorants have on free-swimming fish populations and recreational and commercial fishing.  After evaluation of the relevant scientific data, the USFWS may initiate a NEPA review process to evaluate comprehensive options for cormorant management in the United States, which may include options that offer protection for recreational and commercial fisheries. Depredation problems are especially acute at smaller impoundments in Texas and other states where intensive stockings are being depleted; these stocked impoundments are critically important to TPWD’s efforts to recruit, retain, and reactivate anglers as part of a nationally-supported “60 in 60” campaign.