The double-crested cormorant is a goose-sized waterbird native to North America. It is one of six species of cormorants in North America and one of 38 species worldwide. This black or grayish-black bird is about three feet long with a wingspan of 4.5 feet and has a hooked bill and powerful webbed feet that are used for swimming underwater. An adult weighs about five pounds. This species gets its name from the tufted feathers on both sides of the head, referred to as “crests,” that are present only during nesting season.
Double-crested cormorants are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Under the Act, the Service implements conventions between the United States and four neighboring countries (Canada, Mexico, Russia, and Japan) for the protection of shared migratory birds.
Range and Habitat
Double-crested cormorants are widely distributed in North America. The waterbird is usually found in flocks along the coast and inland on lakes, rivers, and other water bodies. The largest concentrations of double-crested cormorants in the United States are found on the Great Lakes.
Cormorants eat mainly fish. Adults eat an average of one pound per day. The birds are opportunistic and generalist feeders, preying on many species of fish, but concentrating on those that are easiest to catch.
Double-crested cormorants do not nest until they are three years old. They nest in colonies along coasts and inland near rivers and lakes . Females lay two to seven eggs. Both parents incubate the eggs for about a month. Both parents also feed and take care of the chicks. The chicks fledge in 35-42 days.
The Migratory Bird Treaty Act prohibits the killing or harming of double-crested cormorants without prior authorization by the FWS. Depredation permits are provided to individuals, private organizations, and other federal and state agencies on a case-by-case basis for the lethal control of problem birds. In contrast, a Depredation Order establishes conditions in regulations under which specified entities or individuals can take a protected species without obtaining an individual depredation permit.
The Court Decision
On May 25, 2016, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia vacated two depredation orders—the Aquaculture Depredation Order and the Public Resource Depredation Order—for double-crested cormorants until the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service) prepares an adequate Environmental Assessment (EA) or Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in compliance with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The Court concluded that the Service did not take a “hard look” at the effects of the depredation orders on double-crested cormorant populations and other affected resources and failed to consider a reasonable range of alternatives in the EA issued in 2014.
Information for Aquaculture Producers
On November 15, 2017, the Service released an environmental assessment that evaluated options for issuing individual depredation permits to lethally control double-crested cormorants while ensuring the long-term health of the cormorant population. Once published in the Federal Register, aquaculture facility managers and property owners across 37 central and eastern states and the District of Columbia will be able to apply for individual permits for lethal take of double-crested cormorants.
The assessment analyzed options for authorizing lethal control to reduce: health and human safety risks, damage to aquaculture facilities, impacts to federally-listed threatened or endangered species, and damage to property (i.e., buildings and infrastructure, vehicles and equipment and native vegetation). It provides a strong biological foundation to ensure cormorant populations are managed responsibly and in compliance with federal laws and regulations, while balancing economic development, human health and safety, endangered species management and other priorities.
Given the allowable take provided for in the assessment, the Service is implementing a number of steps to make sure we do not exceed the allowable take including prioritizing the take based on the type of damages when allocating take: (1) human health and safety, (2) aquaculture, (3) federally listed threatened and endangered species, and (4) property.
The environmental assessment caps the number of cormorants that can be lethally taken in each flyway annually:
- Atlantic: 11,634
- Florida: 211
- Mississippi and Central: 39,726
- Total: 51,571
Aquaculture producers across the Southeast are now able to apply for individual depredation permits for lethal take of double-crested cormorants. For those who have already submitted an application for a depredation permit, no additional action is necessary.
The Service’s Southeast Region will begin issuing individual depredation permits by the end of this month. Currently, more than 140 individual permit applications have been filed in this Region, mostly by aquaculture producers.
USDA APHIS’ Wildlife Services
If a producer needs assistance with depredating cormorants and needs to submit an application, the first step is to contact the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services at 1-866-487-3297.
USDA Wildlife Services will provide the producer with a depredation application or a website link to the application online. The agency also will complete a Wildlife Damage Report that must be submitted with the depredation application to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Please call if you have experienced depredation involving cormorants or to learn more about non-lethal ways to address depredating cormorants. This toll-free number will direct you to a local Wildlife Services contact regardless of which state you call from. You also may look up a Wildlife Services state office online.
Over the next year, the Service will engage states, tribes, and other stakeholders to assess the biological, social and economic significance of wild fish-cormorant interactions. This will include identifying the monitoring needs necessary to address the issue and gathering better scientific information that could be used in the NEPA review and decision making process.