Cormorant close-up

WaterLine photo by Capt. Josh Olive

Seen up close, the eye of a double-crested cormorant glows like a fine aquamarine. This bird is a juvenile and has not yet acquired the black adult plumage.

Cormorants don’t make friends easily. They’re not the prettiest or most graceful birds and they don’t have much of a song, so they don’t get a lot of point for aesthetics (although they have perhaps the most beautiful eyes of any bird species). They form noisy and messy colonies, so they’re not great neighbors.

And of course, they eat fish almost exclusively. That’s the one that puts them over the top — the one that makes otherwise reasonable people spit and sputter like South Park characters. “They took our fish!”

But cormorants, like every other creature in the wild, fulfill a vital role in a healthy ecosystem. While it’s true that human intervention has led to imbalances, cormorants are probably more helpful than harmful in the effort to get us back to center.

Almost every saltwater fisherman has watched cormorants diving around one of his favorite spots. We wonder what they’re catching down there. How many snook, trout and redfish are disappearing into those sleek black bodies? Two or three? Dozens? Hundreds? Are they the reason you’re not catching any fish?

Cormorants get scapegoated a lot. It’s easy to do. Human nature demands that every problem has a responsible party, and also that the responsible party is not us. We see lots of cormorants around, and we know they eat fish. We have fewer fish than we would like. It’s easy to put two and two together. It’s so obvious!

And also, so wrong. Studies of cormorant diets show they overwhelmingly target midsize non-game species, with a strong preference for slow-moving bottom dwellers. Favored prey items here include toadfish, lizardfish and — perhaps one of the few Charlotte Harbor residents that might lose a popularity contest to a cormorant — hardhead catfish.

Sure, they take a few sportfish. They are especially fond of trout that have just been released. But the numbers are small — so small they don’t even show up in the surveys. They also like pinfish, which they consume far more often than herring or sardines here.

Catfish are at the top of their prey list. Of course, there are a bunch of catfish farmers in Mississippi who could have told you that. Cormorants love catfish so much they will sometimes completely abandon fishing in natural waters to focus on catfish farmers’ ponds. They do this despite being deterred by all manner of noisemakers, pyrotechnics, trained dogs and even shotguns.

The next time you see cormorants diving in your fishing hole, don’t picture them slurping up all your target species. Instead, think of them picking off catfish and pinfish, clearing the way for your baits to catch more gamefish. Maybe then you can appreciate them, just the tiniest bit.

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.

Contact Capt. Josh Olive at 941-276-9657 or Publisher@WaterLineWeekly.com.

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