NORTH BAY -- The controversial culling of cormorants starts Tuesday, intended to protect the fish population, the province says, but many groups disagree.

Animal protection activists argue the cull endangers the bird species, while advocates dismiss such concerns as exaggerated.

"These are birds that have been driven close to extinction twice in the last 200 years," said Liz White, director of the Animal Alliance of Canada and the leader of the Animal Protection Party of Canada.

"One of those times was from persecution. So we know that these birds are extremely vulnerable to this kind of action and what we have now in the Province of Ontario is a province-wide killing of a bird that has made a spectacular comeback."

The group sent an open letter sent to John Yakabuski, minister of Natural Resources and Forestry, asking for more scientific research to support the hunt. The hunt currently goes one for 106 days, and allows hunters to take 15 birds per day.

Fifteen birds a day

"Fifteen birds a day is actually comparable to other migratory birds like the dove -- they're 15 a day, as well," said North Bay Hunters and Anglers president Kam Wroblewski. "However those numbers are set, someone had to take a look at the numbers and realize that we have 140,000-plus cormorants and we don't have 140,000-plus cormorant hunters."

Wroblewski said he doubts the cull will be that popular with hunters.

"I think it will be opportunistic, where duck hunters or geese hunters are out there and they see cormorants, they'll take them, but generally I don't think it will be a popular hunt."

In a statement to CTV, the MNR said Ontario is acting on concerns from property owners, hunters and anglers and commercial fishers about the king of damage cormorants have called in their communities.

"Cormorants prey on fish, eating a pound a day," the statement said. "Research shows they can impact some fish stocks. The birds can also damage trees they nest and roost in. In large amounts, cormorant droppings, called guano, can kill trees and other vegetation and destroy traditional nesting habitats for some other colonial water birds."

No scientific evidence

White disagrees, arguing there is no scientific evidence that cormorants harm fish populations.

"In fact, if you look at the total allowable catch for Lake Erie, which is the largest fresh water commercial fishery in the world, the number of fish that are taken out by the commercial fishery has not gone down," she said. "Yet Lake Erie has very large cormorant populations on a number of islands in the western basin."

She said in Toronto, where there are large cormorant colonies, public beaches are listed as "blue flag beaches," deeming them good for swimming and not toxic from cormorant droppings.

"We're talking in Ontario of 140,000 birds, not very many birds," White said. "And if you look at the wider aspect, in all of the islands of the 30,000 islands that are in the Great Lakes Basin, cormorants occupy just under three per cent of those islands."

The Animal Association of Canada is asking people to keep an eye out for injured birds or bird remains so they can document how the season is going.

"We don't know how many birds are going to be killed," White said. "We don't know what effect that's going to have on the population. There's absolutely no measurement and it really is, as denied by the Ford Government, an extermination program."

Despite the controversy, Wroblewski said hunters are just trying to do what's best.

"I think people just need to recognize that as a whole and as a collective, hunters are here to basically enjoy the woods, but we're not looking to cull anything to zero," he said. "We're just basically looking to reset the balance of things and making sure that other species, for example the blue heron - which is having a difficult time thriving because of the cormorants - they have a chance ... We're looking at levelling the playing field for every species out there, and all the fish as well."