Newfoundland and Labrador's cormorant cull is now open, but some seabird biologists say there are flaws in the provincial government's rationale for allowing it in the first place.
As of June 15, people can apply for permits for the "humane, lethal removal" of double-crested cormorants, according to a government release, with the seabirds specifically targeted in areas of fish habitat, municipal water supplies or aquaculture operations. The release said cormorant populations are "rapidly increasing" in some parts of the province.
Seabird expert Bill Montevecchi agrees that populations are rising, but said that low numbers of wild Atlantic salmon and the province's aquaculture sector are at the heart of cull.
"It's kind of the elephant in the room. My guess is that there's been a big lobby from the aquaculture industry because of concerns with cormorants that are attracted to their open sea pens," Montevecchi, a biologist, said.
"I spend a lot of time on the coast and along river mouths, and I know some rivers have concentrations of cormorants that are obviously eating a lot of salmon smolt, but the fact of the matter is there's not that much you can do about it."
But the N.L. Aquaculture Industry Association says it had nothing to do with pushing government to control the bird population.
Executive director Jamie Baker told CBC News any claim that the salmon aquaculture industry is driving the issue is "without any evidence whatsoever and entirely false."
"Our association's membership, with includes all major producing companies and supply chain, are not aware of cormorants currently having significant impacts on salmonid aquaculture sites in Newfoundland and Labrador," Baker wrote in an emailed statement.
"Anyone who has been on a farm site will tell you that farmers have protective measures in place that effectively and safely exclude these sorts of potential predators. So any suggestion there is a "big lobby" from the salmonid aquaculture sector because of concerns with cormorants is nothing more than pure scurrilous fiction, period. "
Montevecchi said there needs to be a targeted, strategic approach to population control based on evidence — but that isn't the current approach.
"It's just an open-ended, grab a permit, no-kill limit and go at it. It's just not being done properly and I'm not sure it needs to be done at all," he said.
"If we're going to deal with it, there are ways to deal with it biologically better than what's being done now."
He also said cormorant populations fluctuate.
"I think the perspective we have to put it in is that there have been a lot of cormorants in the past, and these birds really have a tradition of being persecuted, primarily maybe by fishermen or sport fishermen," Montevecchi told CBC News on Monday.
"They've had a hard time and they've gotten battered."
Accusations 'over the top:' biologist
Ian Jones, a waterbird biologist with Memorial University, told CBC News cormorants could be a problem if they were significantly depleting vulnerable fish populations. But so far Jones said he hasn't seen evidence of that, and doesn't expect it to happen in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Jones, who has studied cormorants in the past, is also skeptical that cormorant guano is actually having much of an impact on drinking water. He pointed to Windsor Lake, a fresh water supply for St. John's, as an example.
"We have thousands of seagulls ... using the lake to bathe, drink water and to defecate and that's in addition to a lot of this guano into the lake. This is something that occurs naturally," he said.
"Is it really a threat to a water supply? We have water treatments using chlorine and other things that are added to kill microorganisms that are in bird droppings and other droppings that are in the water supply. Is there any reason to believe that cormorants will be a special problem here? I'm not aware of that."
He said the tone of discussion around the cull verges on people wanting to launch a war against the bird and there's several unfounded accusations against it.
"Some of the stuff that's being said about this bird is more than a little bit over the top." said Jones.
"I'm not really sure where there would be any alarm about their natural occurrence in our city. They kind of add to natural diversity."