Paul From Minneapolis

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Me, I Got No Problem With Cormorants

Here in Minnesota, on Leech Lake, there’s trouble:

Word has spread that walleye fishing on Leech Lake, one of the state's premier lakes, isn't what it used to be. That means fewer people will be staying at its resorts or visiting this lakeside town where livelihoods are tied to the elusive and tasty catch, prized above all in a state where fishing is king.

"People need fish, plain and simple,'' said Larry Jacobson, owner of Hiawatha Beach Resort. "They need walleye.''

In response, wildlife officials - prodded by resort owners and fishing guides who are convinced the cormorant is to blame - have reached a dramatic decision: Over the summer, they will kill 4,000 or more of the diving birds.

This is not purely a case of incompetent fishermen lashing out in frustration. If fewer walleyes are being caught, it is very like true there are fewer walleyes available to be caught. These walleye fishermen, taken in total, are an efficient machine. Greater than the sum of their parts, I would think.

Mark Martell, director of bird conservation for Audubon Minnesota, believes the cormorants of Leech Lake are being targeted unfairly.

Maybe their habit of nesting in large colonies makes them too visible and an easy scapegoat… Apparently this combination of colonial nesting habits, a preference for fish and a lack of cover-girl good looks -- even Audubon has failed to feature a cormorant on the cover of its well-known magazine -- has made them a target for "control."

To the locals, the connection seems clear. But Mr. Martell may have a point. Maybe the feds or the state DNR did something else wrong with walleye management and they’re taking it out on the cormorants, against whom we are said to share a prejudice that allows us to look the other way as our government slaughters them in their nests.

I’ve always been fine with the cormorants, myself. I’ve never been face-to-face with one in tight quarters, so I didn’t know they were ugly. Now I do. (That doesn’t make me automatically more inclined to slaughter them, but it also doesn’t tilt things the other way.)

This section in Martell’s commentary struck me (emphases added):

Audubon Minnesota believes…(a) proven link between cormorant numbers and economically harmful fish population declines must be established before any further control. Plans should include a review of all possible causes of fish declines.

I might agree with his general drift here. If all we're doing is sacrificing cormorants in some mad idea of appeasing the walleye god, we should step back. But taken at his word, in effect, Mr. Martell is saying that there can never be any such decsive control undertaken: he demands absolute proof, a rarity, of a subjective condition, adding significantly to the burden. I don’t think he even quite means it. But it’s the language of dogmatic liberalism, with surface-level compassion granted complete authority over other considerations, if a rather mundane example.

It’s not entirely harmless, however. In this case I tend to trust the “folk” conclusion about more cormorants eating more walleyes, a concept which is not un-backed by science. So following Mark Martell’s advice as worded would mean that the most effective measure would likely never be done.

Update: Effective even from Mr. Martell’s perspective, that is. He never distances himself from the proposition that, should push come to shove, we would all prefer more walleyes as compared to more cormorants. Sad as that may be, he accepts it. He's part of the status quo of walleye hegemony. So what this may be is a good-hearted liberal hesitating to face up to the inevitable sad consequences of actually doing something.

Update 2: Not to pile on Martell, who after all is only interested in protecting cormorants. As am I. But I also love that little touch of self-inclusion in this societal flaw of anti-cormorantism: how "even Audubon (his employer) has failed (is it a failing?) to feature a cormorant on the cover of its well-known (is it well-known?) magazine."

I believe liberals prefer to include themselves as perpetrators of the sins they point out, usually at one remove, granted, but done in all sincerity as a way of imparting the all-encompassing nature of the particular flaw they see, even if others don't.

As for the merits of this case, I would guess that the magazine has featured ugly birds over the years. If true that would obliterate the reason for the sentence: it would mean not including the cormorant is a coincidence, nothing more, indicative neither of a cormorant's true unsightliness or the magazine's attitude toward any such birds. Yes, for a definitive answer on the issue we would have to see if ugly birds are, if not absent from the covers of well-known bird magazines, perhaps underrepresented. The cormorants might have claim to victim status in that case.

But I would have to see proof of an economically harmful underrepesentation before any further measures are taken.