Aquaculture predators create problem for the industry

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RICHMOND—Wildlife predators are not just a problem for cattle and sheep farmers, they are harming the state’s aquaculture industry as well.

A variety of birds and fur-bearing and burrowing animals create problems for fish and oyster growers. Common aquaculture predators include seagulls, bald eagles, herons, egrets, waterfowl, raccoons, bears, otters and muskrats.

“Farmers can request permits to control birds damaging or destroying aquaculture species,” explained Scott Barras, U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services state director. “But some birds, like bald eagles, have tighter protections, which can make it difficult to do anything to prevent these predators from damaging fish and shellfish.”

Barras said farmers often use pyrotechnics, lights, lasers or loud noises to scare the birds, or they install barriers over their ponds.

Bryan Plemmons raises trout on multiple farms in Augusta and Highland counties and has struggled with wildlife predators for years. “We’ve seen everything from bears, raccoons and birds. The biggest problem is that there has been an increase in the bird population, so there’s an increased predator problem. We’ve also seen an increase in the bear population.”

Plemmons said in his first 25 years he saw one bear on his property, but in the past five years he’s encountered seven or eight bears annually. “Bears create a lot of damage to our farm, along with eating our fish and feed.”

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries evaluates cases of bear damage to agriculture to determine if a permit for removal of bears can be issued.

When it comes to birds, Plemmons said he also is concerned about the risk they present for disease to fish and waterways. “Diseases can stay alive in a bird’s gut for up to 10 days. If they eliminate on our farm it’s a biosecurity issue, because they could be dropping diseases onto our property and to our fish.”

Additionally, burrowing animals like muskrats and nutria can dig into pond levees, damaging the production system.

Plemmons noted that most aquaculturalists consider predators part of the cost of doing business. “You know you’re going to lose a certain amount of money and fish per year, and you factor that into your bottom line.”

Farmers who experience wildlife predator issues are encouraged to call the VDGIF Wildlife Conflict Hotline, at 855-571-9003. The hotline—which was established three years ago—has received more than 30,000 calls from farmers, landowners and homeowners with wildlife concerns.

Media: Contact Barras at 804-739-7739 or Sara Owens, VFBF communications, at 804-290-1133.

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