Weekly Columns

Aquaculture is an important component of Arkansas’s agriculture industry. Our state ranks second in the nation in aquaculture production, which includes species like baitfish, catfish, hybrid striped bass and more. Nearly 30,000 water surface acres across the state are used for aquaculture production, and Arkansas fish farmers contributed $71.1 million to our state’s economy in 2017. A growing number of fish farmers have shared with me their frustrations regarding a threat to their fish –the double-crested cormorant. 

Double-crested cormorants are aquatic birds that eat mostly fish, so when they migrate south for the winter months, Arkansas fish farms make ideal locations for these birds to prey. With adult birds eating a pound of fish a day, they can do serious damage. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates double-crested cormorants cause more than $25 million in damage annually within the aquaculture industry. These birds have become the foremost antagonists of fish farmers. 

Aquaculture producers aren’t alone in the fight against avian predators. Arkansas ranchers are increasingly defending their herds against black vultures. These birds are notorious for attacking during the spring and fall calving seasons. USDA reports that black vultures are responsible for 10 percent of all calves lost to predators. This is quite astonishing considering that other predators include the likes of wolves and bears.

These birds have proven to be a costly menace. Producers are left with few options to defend their animals because these predators are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Today, populations of double-crested cormorant and black vultures are thriving. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a leading authority on the global conservation status of species, considers these species of “least concern.” Still, the protected status prevents producers from taking proactive measures to guard their investment without a valid federal permit. The depredation permit is granted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), but it costs producers annually and caps the number of birds they can legally kill. The quantity permitted is often inadequate to stop these predators.

We need a commonsense solution that allows ranchers and aquaculture producers to safeguard their animals. I recently pressed FWS for flexibility so our farmers and ranchers can better protect their livestock or aquaculture. In a letter I led to the agency signed by members of the Senate and House of Representatives, including Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton and Congressmen Rick Crawford and Bruce Westerman, we urged the agency to streamline the permitting process and revise its rules to allow greater flexibility for producers to better protect their livelihoods. 

This problem extends beyond Arkansas, but the good news is our state’s federal elected officials are engaged on this issue and proposing legislative solutions. This summer, cattlemen from Arkansas, Missouri and Mississippi met with FWS and USDA to discuss their problems and possible solutions in a roundtable hosted by Congressman Crawford. Legislation has also been introduced in both chambers of Congress. I am a cosponsor of the Cormorant Relief Act, legislation introduced by Senator Cotton that would allow fish farmers to manage the double-crested cormorants targeting their farms. 

Fish farmers and ranchers need additional tools to defend their livestock and their livelihood. They shouldn’t have to suffer additional financial losses. We can provide reasonable and responsible rules for effective avian predator management.