Time for Changes in Sea Duck Hunting Seasons
H W Heusmann
Sea ducks are a group of ducks that are circumpolar in the northern hemisphere and include several species of scoters, eiders, long tailed ducks, and harlequins. However, there is little known about most species of sea ducks and in 1999, an interagency Sea Duck Joint Venture was formed to learn more about them.
Sea ducks as a group are hardy, long lived species and adult birds have few natural predators. However, their reproductive potential is low. Most sea duck species do not nest until at least 2 years old and clutches tend to be smaller than for other duck species. Common eiders, for example, do not breed until 3-4 years old, the average clutch is 4 eggs and some years they skip nesting if it’s been a lean winter.
What the scientists discovered with their studies was that most sea duck populations were in decline.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service occasionally establish special hunting seasons for species that appear underutilized (e.g. blue winged teal) or over abundant (snow geese). The special sea duck zone season was established decades ago when few hunters went after this group of birds that are found primarily along coastal waters, sometimes miles out to sea. Safe sea duck hunting required a sizable boat, a good decoy spread and knowledge of weather and sea. With light hunting pressure, long seasons and liberal bags could be offered. However, since the season was first established, it has gained in popularity. An increase in the number of commercial guides allows average waterfowl hunters the opportunity to hunt sea ducks since such guides have the boat, equipment, and knowledge to allow even novice hunters to bag a limit of sea ducks.
In the 1970s only about 12% of Massachusetts waterfowlers hunted for sea ducks. By 1986 that number had increased to 19%. Ten years later it stood at 27% and most recently about a third of our waterfowl hunters hunt at least a few days for sea ducks.
A recent analysis by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on sea duck population dynamics revealed the following:
Species Adult Survival Fecundity* Probability of Over Harvest
Eastern Black Scoter 88% 0.65 .48
Eastern Surf Scoter 88% 0.62 .75
Whitewing Scoter 84% 0.21 .89
Common Eider 90% 0.21 .89
Longtailed Duck 81% 0.31 .95
*ratio of fledged juvenile female/adult female
From the above chart you can see that while annual survival for adults is high, reproduction for sea ducks is generally low. This means, for example, there is an 89% chance that Common Eiders are currently being over-harvested. The Service states that “Recent analysis indicates that annual production is not sufficient to offset the annual mortality levels currently experienced by some sea duck populations, and this is causing a gradual decline in their numbers. . . While the total sport harvest of sea ducks in the Atlantic Flyway is low relative to other waterfowl species, we believe that reductions in harvest levels may be needed to stabilize those populations. . .”
As of this writing, how to achieve this reduction is a matter of discussion. As stated previously, special waterfowl hunting seasons are established for over abundant or under-utilized species. Currently, sea ducks are neither. Therefore, waterfowl biologists in some states say the Special Sea Ducks Hunting zones should be eliminated and the hunting of sea ducks rolled over into the regular duck season and part of the regular duck bag. These tend to be states where sea duck harvest is minor part of the overall duck harvest. Some of these states already currently run their sea duck season with their regular duck season and, since eiders rarely winter farther south than New England, rely mostly on longtails and scoters for their sea duck harvest. Other states do not have special sea duck zones or, in the case of New York, substantial numbers of sea ducks are taken on Lake Ontario and in the Finger Lakes region. There is concern how changes in sea duck regulations would affect opportunities for harvest outside of designated sea duck zones.
Here in New England, doing away with the Sea Duck season would create problems. Most of Massachusetts’ sea duck harvest consists of eiders. Over the past 5 years our annual harvest of Longtailed ducks averaged only 260 birds. The average harvest of all 3 scoter species combined totaled only 1,120 birds but the average annual eider harvest was 4,720.
When we asked Bay State regular season waterfowlers when they preferred to hunt, our Coastal zone hunters picked November as their favorite month followed by the Christmas/New Year’s period , then October with mid/late January receiving the lowest score. When the same question was posed to sea duck hunters, the month of December was the overwhelming favorite, followed by January, then November with virtually nobody wanting to hunt sea ducks in October. If the special sea duck season was eliminated, warm weather October teal and dabbling duck hunters would end up vying for days against January eiders hunters in our Coastal hunting zone. Therefore, we advocated maintaining the sea duck season but significantly restricting it, a position also supported by several other states.
The Atlantic Flyway Council’s technical section proposed beginning with the 2016-17 waterfowl hunting season, the special sea duck zone season be substantially cut from the current liberal 107 day season (the longest hunting season allowed under the Migratory Bird Treaty) to 60 days which the Service estimates would reduce harvest by 20% and reducing the bag limit from 7 to 5, with no more than 4 of eiders, longtailed ducks, or scoters, a conservation measure Massachusetts had already taken back in 1999 (See “Responsive Management for Eider” Massachusetts Wildlife No. 3 1999). This should achieve a 25% reduction in sea duck harvest desired by the Service which will hopefully stabilize populations.
In addition, in Massachusetts we will maintain our restriction on only 1 hen eider per day (also put in place in 1999) which appears to be protecting our increasing population of locally nesting eiders which first began nesting in 1976 after eiders were introduced into the state in 1973-75 by Philip Station, a professor at Framingham State. Stanton was convinced that large scale oiled bird rehabilitation was impractical. Reasoning that a concentrated population was far more vulnerable to a localized disaster like an oil spill, one approach was to establish the population over a broader nesting range. Now nearly 500 eiders are nesting on Boston Harbor islands, with several hundred more in Buzzards Bay and additional birds off Cape Ann.
We would further restrict the harvest of sea ducks to only our designated sea duck zone which is “coastal waters and rivers and streams seaward of the first upstream bridge” and only when the special sea duck season was open, to stay within the allotted 60 days for sea duck hunting.
Maintaining but substantially restricting the sea duck season would allow us to continue with our normal Coastal zone waterfowl season dates and still allow sea duck hunters the opportunity to hunt sea ducks in December and January.
In the past, the USFWS utilized two regulatory cycles. An early season cycle affected hunting seasons that opened in early September, including sea duck seasons, and a late season cycle which involved hunting seasons starting after September 25. Beginning this fall, the two cycles will be combined and all season regulations will be promulgated by December and finalized by February. The final decision on sea duck hunting will be made by the federal Service Regulations Committee. In the past they eliminated Special Scaup seasons and bonus teal bags.
Under the new regulatory cycle our annual Migratory Bird Hunting Regulation Public Hearing will be advanced from August to early spring. At that meeting, our waterfowlers will learn what the final decision is regarding sea duck hunting and voice their opinions about duck hunting dates.
Legislative Alert! In an effort to see what is causing the decline in seaduck numbers and the new limits and season reductions for the 2016-17 season, this letter and the response is being posted to see what we could do as concerned waterfowl association.
This is the response back from "H" Heusmann to my questions (in red) about the lowering of the seaduck limits from 7 to 5. The season is also being cut back from 107 days to 60. His last answer is probably the best "cause" for the problem, but might raise a few hackles from some guys, as we pay for licenses and stamps to support Mass. and U.S. F&W, but seagulls do not. It was nice to get a reply and report back from our State waterfowl biologist:
This is Ed Snyder, from Western Mass Duck Hunters Association. I Just wanted to touch base with you on a few things I talked to Ralph Taylor about at the Hampden County League meeting and were of interest to members at our last duck club meeting.
This concerns the waterfowl hearing coming up and the lowering of the seaduck season limits. Plus, Ralph had informed me he was going to hear from you on your annual senior staff report. Because you are our waterfowl biologist and we value your input, is there anything you can share with us in your report that would be of interest to our club? The attached article will answer most of your questions. (See the downloaded attachment at the bottom of this letter.)
Some of the questions we had, so we can get an educated idea about the root of the problem with seaduck numbers are:
1. If the counts are down here, are the numbers up somewhere else like in far northern waters in Maine or Canada? Can this be attributed to a change in feeding grounds? No, populations are also declining in Maine and the maritimes provinces
(I remember thousands of Eiders coming into Plymouth harbor every morning to feed on the mussel beds and hunters lining up for a mile on the point, but now you can’t hunt as much there, so you would think the numbers would be up, but they seem to be down. Are mollusk numbers down along the coast? What about schools of baitfish?) Megaflocks of seaducks can deplete mussel beds over the winter and then the flock needs to move elsewhere. It may take several years for the mussel bed to restore themselves.
2. Do you think global warming is causing sea ducks to nest elsewhere or stay elsewhere? We don’t have as much ice in the North Pole, so is the Gulf Stream changing because of this and is it altering the migratory routes of sea ducks? There are several subspecies of eiders. Ours is the southern-most subspecies. A northern race breeds farther north in Canada and a separate subspecies breeds and winters in Hudson’s Bay.
3. Are duck hunter numbers up or down overall according to duck stamp sales in MA and other coastal States? I don’t have immediate access to our state duck stamp sales. After years of decline, our HIP registrations increased a few years ago. We are up from 7000 waterfowlers several years ago to about 11000 now but well below the 17-20 thousand we had in the 1970s.
4. Are “HIP” number surveys showing an increase or decrease in sea duck harvests, and is this happening over time? Our biggest harvest is of eiders. The harvest of scoter species and long-tails is 200-400 for each species
5. This is a personal question of mine: Do you think sea duck “guides” are causing an over harvest? (To me, this is the equivalent to the “market gunners” of the early 1900’s practically shooting ducks into extinction for personal profit. Or, do you think ducks are just avoiding the inner coastal areas because of increased pressure?)
I definitely believe guides increase sea duck harvests. They can supply equipment many duck hunters would not otherwise have and use their knowledge of local flocks and sea conditions to allow novice sea duck hunters to hunt like “experts”.
We think that answering these questions is really important, and will give a better view to the big picture. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service needs to find the overall cause for the decrease in seaduck numbers, (which we find alarming.) Lowering the limit numbers might give a false sense of count numbers rising through a decrease in the harvest, but might not be seeing and solving the real problem, if there is another one.
The major problem is low recruitment. Eider chicks, suffer heavy mortality from Gulls. In some cases 90%. However, it is difficult to justify gull control to save eider chicks in order to allow hunters to shoot them instead.
Below is the attached article from H:
WMDH's attends the 2015 Legislative Hearings- Full Report
Recent news on the low Eider sea duck numbers.
Note: In a chart of eider hunter harvest numbers in Maine, they went from 28,700 in 2003, down to only 1000 harvested in 2014. Although Massachusetts harvest number averages are about the same, about 4500, the Maine numbers are enough of a concern that U.S. Fish & Wildlife cut the season and reduced limits from 7 to 5.
At the May Mass. waterfowl hearings "H'" Heusmann suggested that WMDH's contact Maine waterfowl biologist Robert Allen to see what we could do to help- as the low eider numbers are originating on the nesting islands off the coast of Maine because of low eider chick "recruitment," (hatchling survival). This is being attributed to black-backed sea gull predation, causing more than a 90% mortality rate.
We talked to Bob Allen about building rock nesting houses or adding underbrush cover with red rasberry bushes where the hatching rate is about 97%. But, he said that almost 100% of the chicks are hatching now, but gulls are taking almost 100% of them as they try to make it to the water. In turn, they feed them to their chicks.
Commercial over harvesting of mussel beds is a new problem in Maine. Eiders feed heavily on them, but they will also eat young green crabs that are overpopulated and causing a big problem. It turns out that black backed gulls eat mussels but will not eat green crabs. Because of this their numbers all falling, so the problem seems to be correcting itself. ( I was just informed that a gull control shooting just took place too.)
Allen also informed me that a raft of eiders spotted off the coast of Nantucket Island was estimated at 50 thousand strong. Ed Snyder
On Tuesday, November 10, 2015 an official legislative hearing was held at the Division of Fisheries & Wildlife's Field Headquarters in Westborough Mass,
(instead of having it in Boston.) The move was made to allow more sportsmen and women in Western Mass. the opportunity to testify on several bills that were listed as a topic of important discussion. Member Ed Snyder volunteered to represent WMDH's and to testify on our behalf. Paul Baj accompanied Ed.
The first speakers were the Division of F&W heads who made it clear they wanted to allow Sunday bow hunting for deer on WMA's (Wildlife Management Areas.) Plus they wanted full control, so they could monitor the entire undertaking; instead of making it a burden on the legislators. The bills also included hunting with crossbows, the opening of beaver trapping to the public again, and a limited moose hunt.
I (Ed Snyder) got up to speak and gave my testimony. I formally introduced myself as a representative for WMDH's and as as a wildlife and sporting artist who has designed stamps for the Division and have been a participant at the Springfield Sportsmen show for 25 years and many others Statewide. I also stated that I have designed a new sporting license plate for Mass and because of this I have had the opportunity to speak with a lot of sportsmen and women across the state, as well as with the Division of F&W officials. I wanted to lend credibility to my testimony, and said I could relate a broad spectrum of opinions on the issues.
Sunday hunting was first on the agenda. Prior to my testimony and in an effort to kill the Sunday hunting bill, the anti hunting crowd's majority reason voiced was they wanted one day where they weren't afraid to walk in a WMA and would feel safe. They added that because hunters accounted for only 1% of the population that we should be practically ignored. These were two big hurdles for us to jump.
I started by saying that in light of the fact that sportsmen make up only 1% of the State population, sportsmen actually pay for 100% of the Division F&W expenditures and paid for the 200 thousand WMA acres in Mass. Plus, sportsmen do all the work as a tool for the Division of F&W to manage the wildlife on these properties. So, the 99% who don't contribute and don't do the work, should not have an unfair advantage, our voices should have precedence.
In answer to the fears of the general public on the issue of Sunday hunting, I stated that if a person is afraid to walk on public hunting grounds, then DON'T, go to a park! I said, " it's like saying you don't want golfers on municipal golf courses on Sunday because people are afraid to get hit with golf balls and because they want to let their dogs run free all over the courses." I added that this wouldn't even be a topic of legislative discussion!
Other points I made were that Sunday hunting keeps revenues at home; like expensive out of State licenses costing $250, and allows more time at home instead of the opposite. This is because instead of going out of State to enjoy the experience of a hunting camp, where you are inclined to spend the whole weekend away from the family and go repeatedly to justify the expense of the license, you might take a kid or your spouse out on a Saturday for a mentoring outing here in Mass, then you could go bow hunting on Sunday for a serious personal hunting experience. I added that most sportsmen put a lot of time into scouting deer and setting up a tree stand, it's a solitary sport and is not conducive to taking a kid along.
I also emphasized that we are losing a lot of kids in the sport of hunting and that Sunday hunting would make up for this, plus add a lot of new revenue. Despite the fact that I had to give up a personal bow hunting trip, I told them I recently took my grandson out duck hunting this last weekend and he shot his first duck. He also expressed that he would like me to teach him about bow hunting deer.
My grand daughter, (who is a good skeet shot,) wanted to go duck hunting too, but I could not take her, as you are allowed only one kid, with one gun, on one license. So I took her out fishing on Sunday, and she caught three trout. (This was met with big smiles!) But I added that, with Sunday hunting I could have taken them both out hunting individually as is allowed by law. (The legislators nodded their approval to this train of thought relating to kids, and it was brought up by many others too.)
Additionally, although the deer herd needs to be managed on the WMA's, many deer hunters are inclined not to go because the places are being used by upland bird hunters with dogs and bells on their collars, not an ideal place to setup for bow hunting. Sunday hunting would allow for a quiet day to manage the deer herd on stocked WMA's.
The Division also wants to stop commercial dog walkers who are letting non-hunting dogs (a dozen at a time) run free all over the WMA's disturbing the habitat. The dogs are running deer and non-game species that may be on the endangered list too. So if Sunday bow hunting for deer is allowed, the public relations nightmare the Division expects with commercial dog walkers might be quelled if they can have a new good reason to put up signs to keep those dogs out.
Regarding crossbow hunting. I also pointed out that if you allow bow hunting for deer on Sunday you might want to include allowing crossbows as they are accurate right out of the box. This is opposed to needing years of practice to get proficient with new complex compound bows.
Traditional archery equipment has been regarded as giving the deer a fair chance by the non-hunting crowd, but the reality is that it makes for a better chance of wounding deer and missing altogether. This is not what the Division is trying to accomplish with managing the deer population. Plus, more people might want to try Sunday crossbow hunting on WMA's as a new sport and more revenue will be generated here at home. (On average cross bows cost $1000 each, if half the 70,000 hunters in Mass. buys one, that's 35 million dollars added to the economy for new equipment alone.)
In conclusion I read what "H" (our waterfowl biologist) sent us to bring up about the use of dogs for duck hunting during various deer seasons, but this was not on the agenda at hand, they were discussing actual bills that were already filed. But this was not a wasted topic for WMDH's, as "the bug is in their ear" now and might help should this ever come up in the future.
Regarding ineffective testimony, the non-sporting people in attendance made many claims that were false and were well refuted by the sportsmen and woman in attendance. One woman stated there are no statistics reported about collisions with moose and cars, concerning opening a limited season on moose in Mass. This was met with shaking heads on the legislators panel. (It is reasonable to assume that almost every collision with a moose has been reported so damage claims could be filed with insurance companies.)
The other big issue the anti crowd still opposes is beaver trapping. This was also on the list of bills being debated and was a hot topic for the antis. They were concerned that beaver would be traumatized in traps. But it is OK for a paid trapper to traumatize them in traps. (The antis seem to have lost their credibility on this issue with that one.)
Then a professional trapper spoke and opposed opening trapping too, because it would take away from his profits. One of the legislators, State Senator Anne Gobi who was chair of the committee, asked him what he does with the beavers - throw them in a landfill, - she voiced that it looked like a waste of a resource to her.
Lyme disease; Another woman stated that there are no statistics to confirm that deer population control by hunting cuts down on Lyme disease, while a hunter reported that in the town of Lyme Ct., where Lyme disease originated, it is well documented that after deer hunting was encouraged the reported cases of Lyme disease fell by 80%!
Again the Sunday bow hunting and fear of just seeing hunters was refuted by State Senator Anne Gobi, who said she has walked in many various WMA's in Massachusetts and claimed she has never seen a bow hunter even once. So the fear factor was considered false every time it was brought up afterwards.
And not to worry that a national campaign to fight these bills by the antis will ensue, I was informed that their agenda for next year is targeting agricultural farmers who keep chickens and other domesticated animals in cages. (But dogs and cats are kept in cages at the pound.)
In all, I'd say the hearing was a resounding success for sportsmen and for the many sportswomen who were in attendance who spoke to testify officially on all our behalf.
I was proud to voice our opinions to the panel. This was in keeping with WMDH's "purpose" as a club:
#3. "To promote the highest standards of sportsmanship and to strengthen understanding and co-operation between migratory waterfowl hunters and regulatory agencies."
Thank you for allowing me to testify and speak formally on our behalf,
Ed Snyder, Western Mass. Duck Hunters Association member.
"Letting our voices be heard on the highest level."