Submerging Farr Island to deter cormorants may fulfill special interests, but it will create a large black mark against Hamilton's record of environmental integrity and local biodiversity.
By Paul Glendenning
Published September 22, 2010
This October, The Hamilton Port Authority is preparing to look after an issue that they apparently believe mars their image for Harbour restoration. No, it's not the many industries and their toxic fumes that routinely darken our skies, or the many recreational facilities across our waterfront.
No, the aim of the next initiative is tiny Farr Island and its colony of cormorants. The HPA is set to submerge this former hydro tower island and eliminate the nesting ground for hundreds of these unfairly maligned birds.
Cormorants have been persecuted for many generations and were almost wiped out by the twentieth century. A new peril put them under further pressure with the use of DDT until it was banned in 1969. Due to this long-time persecution, their recorded history is sketchy, leading some to claim incorrectly that they are an invasive species.
Today, cormorants are again under threat due to their now-robust population and a variety of misinformation regarding their habits and diet.
The worst recent example of continued local opposition was the deliberate killing of several cormorants in 2008 on Farr Island using wires. The culprit was neither pursued nor charged despite the killings being illegal.
This opposition remains in spite of an exhaustive number of studies consistently demonstrating that cormorants primarily eat small, non-commercial fish and have never been shown to cause the extinction of another species.
Further, it appears that today's cormorants prefer two very invasive fish found in our lakes, Round Gobies and Alewife. A recent news article even mentioned that fish charter boats in New York found their catches up due to the cormorant's consumption of round gobies in their waters.
The Hamilton Port Authority claims they are submerging the island to make shoals to improve fish habitat, but there are no studies analyzing the necessity in an area already containing much of the lake's resident species. Further, they claim it will benefit sport fishing - but again without details of the significance to this annually dwindling hobby.
The real reason appears to be removing the cormorants. Called a "nuisance" in a recent Port Authority newsletter announcing Arcelor Mittel's funding of this act of habitat destruction, the authority appears to be siding with a small number of misinformed anglers and some residents of a small neighbouring community who are concerned about the smell of the island. Cormorants living in colonies tend to produce significant waste within their nesting habitat, which can create a significant odour.
To aid local concerns, the City of Burlington's Indian Creek Estuary Restoration / Enhancement Concept Strategy suggests it may be possible to use an "ecologically benign substance" to reduce the impact of the small island's scent. This report, virtually the only one released by the Port Authority with any details of possible plans, does not recommend the destruction of the whole island. To date, no study that has been released supports this initiative.
There have also been no studies looking at the effect of removing the island on wildlife, or any proof the cormorants will "just leave" to find nesting ground elsewhere. Instead, the island's loss could raise the competition for nesting grounds, possibly putting cormorants in further conflict and jeopardizing both themselves and other more sensitive local bird habitat/natural areas.
It's bad enough that there is an apparent lack of studies on the project set to move forward by mid-October; even worse, community input was limited to a small presentation in Burlington with an audience of 14 people.
Despite this, with one stroke of its Federal Authority brush, the HPA seeks to remove the cormorants from their vision of the North East Harbour. According to the HPA, the land being Federal precludes the need for permission to disturb the birds from other levels of government.
But is there really no room for a vibrant cormorant colony in Hamilton Harbour? Perhaps the answer lies in how we look at our restoration efforts. Instead of painting an idealized picture based on rigidly managed version of what once was but can never truly be again, we need take a realistic snapshot of what is here now and work accordingly.
This means protecting and respecting our existing native wildlife regardless of personal feelings or special interests. We can try mitigating unfortunate side effects of such coexistence but the lives and habitat of any species should not be jeopardized by unrealistic restoration plans of a harbour already severely modified by our industrial and recreational needs.
Submerging Farr Island may fulfill special interests but will create a large black mark against Hamilton's record of environmental integrity and local biodiversity.
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