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Dilemma as rare birds devour rare fish

Once nearly extinct, the German cormorant population has boomed since the European Union adopted protective policies in the 1980s.
Once nearly extinct, the German cormorant population has boomed since the European Union adopted protective policies in the 1980s.

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BERLIN, Germany (Reuters) -- A protected species of bird is devouring rare fish in the German state of Bavaria and creating a dilemma for local officials who now want federal permission to kill birds that once appeared headed for extinction.

The population of cormorants -- black, long-beaked fishing specialists which can stay underwater for up to 30 seconds -- has ballooned to over 6,000 in the Alpine state.

And they are feeding on rare fish species such as grayling and pearl fish, which are unique to the region, German officials said.

"The problem is that a protected bird is eating protected fish," a spokesman for the Bavarian environment ministry said this week.

Eager to save the fish from extinction in the wild, Bavaria has asked the federal government for permission to reduce the bird population, for example by shooting them or taking their eggs. It is also seeking help from the European Union.

"As the birds migrate from other countries we need a European-wide ruling for it to be effective," said the environment ministry spokesman.

The cormorant population has been growing in Germany since the bird was put under European Union-wide protection in the early 1980s when it appeared headed for extinction.

"About 90 percent of river fish are now under massive threat from the birds," said Oliver Born, an official from the Bavarian state fisheries union. "There are some rivers where we have shown that when Cormorants come, 95 percent of the fish disappear by the end of the winter."

But some say the government action is misguided.

"Their plan will not get us anywhere," said Andreas von Lindeiner of the Bavarian bird protection group. "We cannot destroy the bird colonies," he said.

Fishermen at Bavaria's Chiemsee lake, one of Germany's largest, say the birds are eating into their business.

The fish are reared in commercial fisheries that may look like all-you-can-eat buffets to cormorants because large numbers of fish are gathered in small areas of shallow water.

"My fishery loses some 40 tons of fish a year to the cormorants," said Holmer Lex, 75, who owns a fishery on the Chiemsee. "We only produce 90 tons a year."

"The Chiemsee is the only lake in Germany that has pearl fish," Lex said. "They have died out in the lake, but we're trying to raise them now."

The regional government ordered the cormorant population in the Chiemsee to be cut in half last year, but rejected a request put forward by Lex and others to halve it again this year.

"Cutting the population of birds will help solve the problem over the medium term," Born said.

Copyright 2003 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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