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Getting the Lead Out

Lead fishing tackle kills loons; with no national policy to fight the problem, conservationists are convincing anglers to switch to nontoxic alternatives

  • Steve Nadis
  • Aug 01, 2001

KATE TAYLOR got the call on the Fourth of July: A dead body near Lovell Lake. She drove from her office in Moultonborough, New Hampshire, to Wakefield near the Maine border, where she found the plastic body bag just where it was supposed to be. A note fastened to the bag directed her to a suspicious character down at the town beach.

A senior biologist with the Loon Preservation Committee, Taylor identified the suspect on the beach instantly. The bird, a common loon, was skinny and lethargic, with droopy eyes, a gaping mouth and head tremors—all classic signs of lead poisoning. She approached the bird and picked it up—something a healthy wild animal would never allow—and took it to a local veterinarian. An X ray revealed a dense lump of metal in the loon´s stomach, most likely a piece of lead fishing tackle. The humane choice, the two scientists agreed, was to euthanize the bird.

Taylor then froze both birds she´d found, packed each in a separate labeled bag and sent them to Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts for more detailed analysis. Research biologist Rose Miconi, who conducted necropsies of the specimens at the university´s Wildlife Clinic, confirmed the original diagnosis of lead poisoning. Both loons were emaciated, with no visible fat beneath the skin and high levels of lead permeating their livers and tissues. From each of the birds´ stomachs, Miconi removed a lead sinker—a round weight anglers attach to a fishing line to keep it below the surface.

Unfortunately, such incidents are all too common. According to Wildlife Clinic Director Mark Pokras, he and his colleagues have conducted post-mortem exams of more than 500 loons since 1988. About half the adult birds collected in New England had died from accidentally ingesting lead sinkers or weighted lead fishing hooks known as jigs. Though lead fishing tackle kills plenty of other bird species too, loons—and particularly New England´s loons—are the hardest hit of all. With no federal laws or regulations on the books to combat this long-documented—and easily solved—problem, conservationists are now launching programs to convince anglers to voluntarily switch from lead to nontoxic alternatives.

About 20 percent of all loon deaths in the United States are blamed on lead fishing tackle. One reason the problem is most acute in New England, biologists believe, is that shallower waters here than, say, the Great Lakes mean loons have easier access to gear that sinks to the bottom. While the region´s precise death toll is unknown (many lead-poisoning victims are never recovered), Pokras estimates that it adds up to at least a couple of hundred loons a year. In New England, says Miconi, "lead sinkers are the single greatest cause of adult loon mortality."

Nationwide, birds of more than 30 species from at least ten states have died as a result of ingesting lead fishing tackle. In addition to loons, the victims include swans, pelicans, geese, ducks, cranes, herons and eagles. "I don´t think anyone fully appreciates the magnitude of this problem," says Pokras.

NWF Campaign

Saving Loons From Lead

To protect loons from lead poisoning—the number one killer of this species in New England—NWF is sponsoring a program to educate recreational anglers about the risks of lead fishing tackle through displays at dozens of state parks, tackle shops and fishing events throughout the region.

At several locations in Vermont and New Hampshire, NWF—in collaboration with local groups, including one of its affiliates, the New Hampshire Wildlife Federation—also offers the opportunity to trade in lead sinkers for safe alternatives such those made of iron or steel. Already, anglers have exchanged tens of thousands of sinkers.

Still, loons seem to be the most affected species of all. That suspicion was confirmed in 1999 by a report from Chris Franson and colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey in Madison, Wisconsin. Their study—which examined the frequency of lead-sinker ingestion by 30 bird species—put loons at the top of the list, with brown pelicans second.

Loons ingest lead fishing gear in two ways: They may eat a fish that has a hook and sinker already attached to it, or the birds may pick up sinkers from the bottom of a lake along with the small stones they use to aid digestion (the stones help loons grind up the food in their stomachs). In either case, the effects are devastating, usually leading to the bird´s death within a week.

A severely lead-poisoned loon cannot fly and is also impaired in the water, making it more likely to be struck by a boat or to drift into another bird´s territory (where it may be attacked). More importantly, the bird loses its ability to dive underwater for fish, resulting in starvation. Because lead targets the central nervous system, victims also become so weak and uncoordinated that they may beach themselves. On land, the sick loon is an easy target both for predators and infectious agents like bacteria. And if the bird miraculously survives all this, nerve damage eventually shuts down its digestive system, meaning that the loon can die of starvation even with a full stomach.

According to Taylor, the death of the two loons she found near Lovell Lake was a particularly significant loss. They comprised a male and female breeding pair—one of only about 200 in New Hampshire. Some loons may spend a lifetime trying, unsuccessfully, to secure a mate and a territory to call their own in order to produce offspring. "Only the fittest animals manage to do this year after year," says Taylor, "so we lost the cream of the crop."

Nor is lead the only problem loons face. Near the top of the hazards list stands another heavy metal—mercury. Because most mercury in places like New England comes from the atmosphere—as a pollutant discharged by power plants, incinerators and other sources, either local or global—it is dispersed widely throughout the environment and has the potential to affect the health of the species as a whole.

For that reason, biologist David Evers at the BioDiversity Research Institute in Falmouth, Maine, considers mercury an even more serious threat to loons than lead over the long run. Evers has documented several of this neurotoxin´s pernicious effects, including the way it disrupts a bird´s nesting behavior and ability to care for its young—factors that may ultimately lead to an overall population decline.

Because the metal is so ubiquitous in the environment, protecting loons from mercury poisoning will be extremely difficult, requiring strict regulations at all of the pollutant´s multiple sources. But that´s not the case with lead. Simply switching from toxic to nontoxic fishing tackle can offer a straightforward solution to the problem. "It´s black and white," says Pokras. "One hundred percent of the animals that ingest lead fishing gear die of lead poisoning, while those lucky enough to avoid this stuff do not." Adds Miconi: "We´ve taken lead out of gasoline and paint, so why can´t we keep it out of our waterways?"

It turns out that we can—both easily and inexpensively. Today more than a dozen U.S. manufacturers produce lead-free sinkers and jigs that are available in fishing tackle stores and retail outlets nationwide. The trick is to make sure that any non-lead alternative is also nontoxic. "One zinc sinker on the market is as toxic as lead," says Pokras, who would also like to see safety tests conducted on brass and tin sinkers before they become widely available. But a variety of other materials—including iron, steel, bismuth, rock and ceramic—are already considered safe, he adds.


That´s why conservationists are frustrated that there still is no nationwide ban on the use of lead fishing gear, even though Great Britain successfully instituted such a ban more than a decade ago. In this country, a few states have decided to act on their own: Last year, New Hampshire prohibited the use of lead sinkers weighing less than an ounce and of jigs less than an inch in length (sizes small enough to be ingested by a loon). A bill recently passed in Maine will make it illegal, as of 2002, to sell lead sinkers lighter than a half-ounce. And in Massachusetts, lead fishing tackle is not allowed on a handful of lakes in the northern part of the state where loons are known to breed and nest.

But even in these states federal legislation is still urgently needed, says Pokras. "We currently have different regulations on the books for New Hampshire and Maine, yet they are adjacent states. Anglers fishing on border lakes have to obey different laws. We need uniformity to make the transition from lead to nontoxic tackle practical for fishermen, the fishing industry and the stores that sell this stuff."

According to National Wildlife Federation biologist Margaret Fowle, there may not be enough political momentum today to achieve such a nationwide ban. (Previous federal restrictions on lead tackle, proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency, were defeated in 1994.) That´s why NWF´s Vermont field office, where Fowle works, is spearheading a voluntary effort. The hope, she says, is to increase both awareness of the danger to loons and familiarity with the use of nontoxic sinkers.

So far, the plan seems to be working. In response to an educational campaign waged during 1999 and 2000, fishermen in Vermont and New Hampshire have turned in more than 40,000 lead sinkers at fishing stores and state parks, receiving free steel sinkers in return. This summer the program will expand to include marinas as well as more state parks and tackle shops. The Maine Audubon Society has initiated similar lead-sinker exchanges throughout that state.

Ross Stevens, a Vermont fisherman who helped implement the NWF plan, says that many of the anglers he´s spoken with are enthusiastic about saving the loons. "A few said they didn´t mind if loons died, because they eat all the fish, but that was definitely a minority view." Stevens adds that full compliance will take more time, "because of the perception that lead sinkers are cheaper, plus the fact that people are slow to change."

But price, at least, is becoming less of a concern. Doug Crumrine, whose Nebraska company Bullet Weights makes the "Ultra Steel" sinkers used in the NWF program, says that a pack of steel sinkers costs only 10 to 20 cents more than a lead pack of comparable size. Given that anglers typically use just a pack or two of sinkers every year, that price difference amounts to small change, he adds.

According to Crumrine, steel sinkers have advantages beyond being safe for loons. "They are more sensitive; you can better feel what is going on at the end of the line," he says. They also retain their shape better than lead, which is malleable, and they hold paint longer.

Wayne Lanphear, owner of The Fishing Hole in Morrisville, Vermont—a store that participates in the NWF exchanges—is a big fan of Ultra Steel sinkers, which he uses for deep-water fishing on Lake Champlain. "I´ve been catching more fish since I switched over to steel," says Lanphear. Steel sinkers are also becoming more popular with his customers, who are impressed with the big catches they see him haul in—sometimes 30 bass a day. "I don´t make more money selling non-lead stuff," Lanphear says. "But if you go out on the lake with steel and catch more fish without endangering birds, there´s no reason not to do it."

Cambridge, Massachusetts, writer Steve Nadis wrote about the search for ""guilt-free seafood" in the December/January 2001 issue.

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