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Fishermen declare war on cormorants

21 March 2008

OVIEDO – A great cormorant spreads its huge wings and shakes them dry. The bird has just emerged from the reservoir in La Granda in the northern region of Asturias, where it is diving in search of trout. In these waters, a strange war is going on between cormorants and fishermen, who say the birds are eating all the fish. Caught in the middle, the regional government has opted to cull 200 birds to appease fishermen as the salmon season started Sunday.

The great cormorant came close  to extinction in Europe. In 1978 in Asturias, only 43 remained. This bird, which spends the summer in Nordic regions and in winter returns to the Iberian Peninsula, was declared a protected species in the 1980s. The population has recovered since then with some 2,000 inhabiting Asturias and 800,000 throughout Spain.

On many rivers, nobody but keen bird-watchers even notice that the cormorants are there. From a distance they can be mistaken for large ducks, though they have some behavioural peculiarities such as taking a leap into the air before diving for a fish. But with 50,000 freshwater fishing licenses amounting to a considerable industry, their presence is noted in Asturias.

A spokesman for a fishing association says that the regional government’s measures are not enough. "We don’t want control," the spokesman says. "We want eradication. This bird never lived here. It has come recently and it’s cleaning the rivers [of fish]."

The regional government of Asturias’ department of the environment is headed by the Socialist Party (PSOE). It has decided to leave a minimal population by culling some 200 birds. It says the measure is intended not just to keep the fishermen happy but to prevent an imbalance from occurring in the ecosystem. Cormorants keep trout and salmon populations in check.

However, ecologists and experts deny the extent of the impact that the bird has on fish populations. David Álvarez, an ecology professor at the University of Oviedo, says that cormorants eat far fewer trout and salmon than has been claimed. "They [fishermen] blame everything on the cormorants, and say nothing about overfishing," explains Álvarez. "In the last 20 years, the number of fishing licences on Asturian rivers has more than doubled. When they can’t find fish, they blame it on the cormorants."

[Copyright El Pais / RAFAEL MÉNDEZ 2008]