I’ve just posted, in my Bangor Daily News blog, the sad story of a loon rescue launched in my backyard on Minnehonk Lake in Mount Vernon. Please read it and then consider this – the rest of the story.
This loon died of lead poisoning after ingesting a lead sinker used and lost by an angler. Quite a few years ago, Maine Audubon proposed and lobbied for a new law banning the sale of lead sinkers weighing one ounce or less.
On behalf of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, I successfully lobbied to reduce the weight to half an ounce or less, and the bill was enacted. It is illegal today in Maine to sell lead sinkers of one half ounce or less.
The lead sinker that killed the loon that’s the subject of this story weighed five eighths of an ounce – slightly more than the half ounce that was banned. I was stunned to hear that from the owner of Avian Haven. And humbled, feeling partially responsible for the death.
At the time Audubon proposed the bill, alternatives to lead sinkers were new to the market and much more expensive. That was our rationale for opposing the bill and working to reduce the weight of the banned sinkers.
But the weight reduction was not the only error made. None of us recognized the necessity of banning the use of lead sinkers. Or perhaps we understood the impossibility of getting such a ban enacted by the legislature. I really don’t remember. But we didn’t ban the use of lead sinkers of any weight.
Even though today lots of alternatives are readily available for lead sinkers, prices of those other types of sinkers have come down, and stores including LL Bean don’t sell lead sinkers anymore, many anglers continue to use lead sinkers. Although I rarely use sinkers these days, my tackle boxes are full of lead sinkers – enough for at least my next two generations of anglers.
Yesterday, I collected all those sinkers and set them aside. But when I inquired about disposal, I discovered this won’t be easy. Lead sinkers are hazardous waste. That’s right. We’re fishing with hazardous waste!
I’ll be working with my local transfer station supervisor to properly dispose of my lead sinkers.
I urge you to rid your tackle boxes of lead sinkers as well, and to read the Maine Audubon briefing sheet that follows this blog post. Some of the information may shock you. Clearly, we anglers have not been paying attention to this problem.
Better late than never.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jane Naliboff, Daily Bulldog
Maine Audubon Briefing Paper
Minimizing the Effect of Lead Fishing Tackle on Waterfowl
Lead is considered a highly toxic metal. Because of the dangerous effects it can have on humans such as damage to the nervous system, hearing and vision impairment, and devastating effects on developing children, it has been banned from many previously common sources such as gasoline, paint or in our plumbing.
One place where it is predominate is the sporting industry. The US Geological Survey estimates that roughly 10% of all lead produced in, or imported to the U.S. is used for fishing or hunting purposes. Currently, 2,700 tons of lead sinkers are manufactured every year in the U.S coupled with an additional 550 tons in Canada.
The Wildlife Clinic at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University found that almost half of all the dead or dying breeding loons that were submitted suffered from lead poisoning, “virtually all off this from eating lead fishing gear.” 64% of Common Loon carcasses from New Hampshire and 44% of those from Maine had ingested lead sinkers.
Underscoring the extent that lead fishing tackle effects the loon population, Dr. Mark Pokras, an Assistant Professor of Wildlife Medicine at Tufts explains that: “Without a doubt, lead poisoning from sinkers and jig-heads is the number one killer of adult common loons.”
What Waterbirds are Affected?
Lead poisoning related to ingesting sinkers and jigs has been documented in 27 different species of waterbirds, including swans, cranes, ducks, egrets and geese.
How Do Waterbirds Ingest Lead?
Birds that feed on the shoreline area swallow small pebbles and gravel (known as “grit”) to aid in digestion. Small lead sinkers can easily be mistaken as grit and be inadvertently consumed.
Deep-diving birds such as loons may also ingest lead sinkers or jigs when eating fish that still have lead tackle attached to them. Fish trailing broken line may be much easier for waterbirds to catch as evident in the multiple jigs and sinkers found in loon carcasses, raising concern that they may be adapting to feed on this “easy” but incredibly toxic prey.
How Does Lead Effect Waterbirds?
A loon that eats only one lead sinker or jig will experience the symptoms of lead poisoning. The first signs of lead poisoning will cause the loon to fly poorly, resulting in crash landings and staggering on the ground. Early signs of lead poisoning will cause a loon to gasp and shake, eventually leading to nerve damage. A poisoned loon will hide amongst the vegetation and begin to eat very rarely, leaving it with little strength to migrate with healthy loons and staying behind. Two to three weeks after ingesting the lead sinker, a loon will often starve to death.
Are there Safe Alternatives to Lead?
Yes! There are many inexpensive alternatives to lead currently at any shop that sells tackle. Non-toxic alternatives such as tin, tungsten, and steel are easily found and cost very little more.
Steel sinkers in particular are priced very similarly to lead, with a box of 90 of various sizes costing only $8.99 from Bullet Weights. They are only slightly less dense (resulting in a sinker that is 20% larger) but work just as well as a lead weight without potentially poisoning wildlife.
What are Other States Doing to Prevent the Use of Lead Sinkers and Jigs?
As of 2012, seven states have restrictions on the use of lead sinkers—Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire and Vermont. Additionally, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has banned lead sinkers in two national wildlife refuges and Yellowstone National Park.
Outside of the United States, the United Kingdom has banned all lead fishing weights under 1 ounce while Canada has banned all lead fishing weights weighing less than 50 grams (or 1 ¾ ounces) within their national parks and wildlife areas. Denmark has a passed a law prohibiting companies from importing or marketing any product containing lead.
How is Lead Fishing Tackle Currently Regulated in Maine?
Maine currently prohibits the sale of all lead sinkers and jig-heads weighing ½ ounce or less.
The law does not however ban the use of lead sinkers below the legal weight. Lead tackle that was already owned before the ban took effect as well as lead tackle from out of state is legal to be used in Maine’s inland waters.