By Gary Polakovic
Many of the Salton Sea's most spectacular birds are routinely shot as pests, and the federal agency charged with their protection approves the killing.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has authorized killing 3,287 birds in the Salton Sea area since 1987. Nine operators of commercial fish-rearing ponds near the sea sought and received the so-called depredation permits to stop birds from eating into their profits, governments documents show.
Great blue herons, double-crested cormorants, black-crowned night herons and various egrets account for two-thirds of the birds targeted for eradication.
Those species are in sharp decline at the Salton Sea. Yet the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1991 approved killing 1,202 of them -- 50 percent more than allowed in 1987, the records show.
The numbers do not include birds killed illegally or birds killed by people who exceed their quota.
Toxic pollution, rising salinity and fewer fish in the sea contribute to bird deaths. But shooters, too, make a helluva dent" in the population, said Norm Hogg, biologist at Santa Monica College who has studied birds at the Salton Sea since 1969.
"I think it's absurd," Hogg said. "Bumping off those birds of course is going to have an impact."
Fish farmers, as they sometimes call themselves, say they have no choice. The birds have voracious appetites and gobble catfish and trout unmercifully.
At best, the predators are a nuisance. At worst, they are a threat to the farmers' economic survival.
Three years ago, "hundreds of birds," including fish-chomping white pelicans, raided Valley fish Farm in Brawley, a supplier of catfish to restaurants and two Riverside County lakes, said company manager Ted Kasckow.
The birds devoured about 300,000 fish, nearly forcing the company out of business.
"It was like war. We were up 24 hours a day chasing birds away," Kasckow said. "We tried everything."
Net-like fences around the ponds and lines stretched across the water failed to deter the dive-bombing predators.
"I think it's absurd. Bumping off those birds of course is going to have an impact."
Norm Hogg, biologist at Santa Monica College who
has studied birds at the Salton Sea since 1969
Air horns, radio-controlled air planes, rubber sharks, an ultralight aircraft, even boom boxes on loan from a local low-rider club could not stop the aerial assault.
Killing the birds was the only alternative, Kasckow said. Valley Fish Farms as permitted to kill 50 cormorants, 15 great blue herons and 50 Caspian terns last year.
"It's no different than a rancher trying to protect lambs or calves from coyotes," Kasckow said.
George Ray, co-owner of Fish Producers of California in Niland, said the bandit birds cost his company about $30,000 a year.
The law enforcement arm of the Fish and Wildlife Service defends the practice.
Only a limited number of birds can be shot. Permit holders are required to provide annual reports tallying the number of birds killed, though a review of the records shows some do not. And in most cases the permits require aquaculture operations to first try hazing to keep the birds away, and shooting only as a last resort.
Nets stretched across the fishponds considered the most foolproof bird deterrent, are not required. The fish farmers say they are too expensive.
In 1989, Ray and tow other fish Producers employees illegally shot 225 birds, including brown pelicans, an endangered species. A federal magistrate fined the company $25,000 in 1991. Ray and the two employees paid $17,000 in penalties and received two years' probation for violation of the Endangered Species Act and Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
Fish Producers received a renewed permit to kill birds five weeks after they pleaded guilty.
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