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Anglers Cry Foul Over Cormorants

Fishermen say the federally protected birds leave slim pickings at Orange County lakes.

August 25, 2000|HECTOR BECERRA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The fishermen stared across Anaheim Lake, where dark, crouching birds peered into the gently rippling water. Long-necked and hungry, cormorants were on the prowl. One bird glided swiftly onto the water.

"There they go, raising hell," grumbled Fullerton angler Jim Davis, 51.

The waters churned in a frothy white tumult.

"Probably got a big one," said David Piskorz, 49, of Anaheim, with a mixture of envy and disgust.

Awkward looking on shore, the cormorant became a picture of lethal grace underwater. In seconds the bird emerged victorious, a fat catfish in its pouched beak as it flapped ashore at the artificial lake on Miraloma Avenue in industrial northeast Anaheim.

Cormorants have been feasting on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stocked fish each year at private lakes and city parks across Southern California, irritating the small-business owners who stock them, as well as the anglers who want them. While cormorants aren't the only avian fish eaters, they are among the most aggressive. And because the birds are protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, there's not a thing anyone can do about it.

Except swear like sailors, or sneak the occasional potshot with a rock.

"It's really difficult not to get a .22 with a silencer and infrared, and knock those stupid birds off their trees when you see them eating all the fish," said Rick Mendoza, owner of a 44-acre lake in Laguna Niguel Regional Park. He figures he loses about $40,000 in stocked fish to cormorants each year.

Jeff Sun, 31, a forklift operator from La Mirada, created a petition in January on his fishing Web site--http://www.fishinghotpage.com--to denounce the cormorants. About 150 people from throughout Southern California have signed up.

In sometimes rambling missives, people call cormorants "nasty little creatures," "Black Pests," "crazed fish-eating machines," and "ugly black buzzard-like birds."

Sun said he wasn't surprised by the number of responses.

"As a fisherman, I get disgusted," Sun said. "The [cormorants] are getting nice and fat."

The scenes that prompt such grumbling are not at sylvan lakes in the middle of breathtaking wilderness. Whittier's Legg Lake, Echo Park Lake in Los Angeles, and El Dorado Park Lake in Long Beach are just some of the artificial ponds that sport sizable numbers of cormorants during prime fishing seasons. Elsewhere, the lakes are even ringed by smokestacks and industrial drab. Still, the men who plunk down $16 at Anaheim Lake to fish cling to the hope of landing a "big one," to wrestle with nature and win. The last thing they want is nature interfering with the experience.

Cormorant Problem Is Called a Myth

And fishing in urban lakes is usually not the challenge it is in natural lakes or roaring rivers.

When water storage facilities like Anaheim Lake and others in the Santa Ana River basin are drained, you can easily see why: The lakes are basically huge mudholes. Fish have few if any places to hide. This is good not only for anglers, but also for birds and even other predatory fish.

Environmentalists and federal and state officials, however, contend the problem posed by cormorants is greatly exaggerated. They point out that there are at most 22,000 cormorants along the spine of California's coast, not the hundreds of thousands as in the Great Lakes region, let alone the huge flocks reminiscent of Hitchcock's "The Birds" that some lake owners and anglers have claimed. One official said some fishermen just have a bad attitude.

"The point of fishing is not to catch a fish every time you throw your line into the water," said Diego Busatto of the state Department of Fish and Game. "This isn't shooting fish in a barrel. Sometimes you catch a fish, sometimes you don't."

Sylvia Gallagher, a bird expert with the Sea and Sage Audubon Society in Irvine and author of the "Atlas of Breeding Birds of Orange County, California," said the Southern California cormorant problem is largely a myth.

"People are projecting their frustrations on these birds," she said. "There simply aren't enough of them here to cause the problems people say they're causing."

There has been a backlash against the birds, nonetheless, local environmentalists and bird lovers say.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has no records of violent acts against cormorants in California. But volunteers at the Pacific Wildlife Project in Irvine have treated many wounded cormorants, including some with injuries that "suggest they have been brutalized by humans," said Linda Evans, the nonprofit group's director. In addition, fishing line and bait can accidentally snag the birds' wings or feet.

Cormorants may not be as numerous in California as they are elsewhere, but they are found throughout much of the Southland, swooping along the San Gabriel River, nesting near small ponds and in flood-control channels, estuaries and lakes. They are found wherever fish are stocked and trees provide a place to nest.

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