Are double-crested cormorants the reason for declining fish populations in South Carolina’s waterways? The common consensus among anglers has been a firm “yes” for a number of years, and for the past two years, hunters have been able to legally shoot the birds thanks to a pretty aggressive cormorant hunting policy. 

That hunting policy took a blow earlier this week in a 17-page ruling by U.S. District Judge John D. Bates, in which he cited that federal authorities did not consider “a reasonable range of alternatives” to killing the cormorants.

The ruling fell short of stopping the cormorant killings, but it has ordered authorities to revisit the cormorant issue and to come up with alternate ways to address it.

Over 25,000 of the fish-eating birds met their demise to hunters in South Carolina between 2014 and 2015, according to the SCDNR. Federal authorizations allowed the SCDNR to establish a hunting season for the birds after a number of studies by several different agencies suggested they kill a large number of fish daily. New studies though, have brought the previous ones into question.

Retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Steve Gilbert said the cormorant hunting seasons were authorized without first doing proper studies.

“Cormorants are just the latest scapegoat. There is no data to show how they are really harming the fishery in the lakes,” said Gilbert, who noted that declining fish populations could be attributed to a number of factors, including lower oxygen levels caused by an abundance of plant growth in lakes like Marion and Moultrie. 

Ben Gregg, director of the S.C. Wildlife Federation agrees, and said this ruling is a step in the right direction.

“It’s definitely a positive development. It tells you that the Fish and Wildlife Service and our state Dept. of Natural Resources need to make decisions based on science – not on politics and anecdotal evidence,” Gregg said.

What does this mean for the double-crested cormorant population in South Carolina? It’s not entirely clear right now, but some change is more than likely coming, according to SCDNR’s chief of statewide programs, Derrell Shipes.

“We will look into this and confer with the Fish and Wildlife Service. It sounds like the Fish and Wildlife Service is going to have to review this ruling and decide what it means for them in terms of the (cormorant hunting season) extension” he said.