Recovery: Saving Loons from Lead Fishing Tackle

Loons face many hazards. Here's one we can easily address: lead fishing tackle.

A night silence settled over Big Island Pond in southern New Hampshire when we lost the whippoorwills. But about 20 years ago common loons (“common” only north of the contiguous states) showed up for the first time in even my grandparents’ memory.

The territorial song of the males — wild, discordant yodeling — starts at one end of our island and is answered at the other. Then contact calls — soft owl-like hoots and wails like the whistles of distant freight trains. By day tremolos as the heavy, black-and-white-checkered birds descend in swift flight, hitting the water and skidding sideways like ditching aircraft.

In May 2009 I watched a loon haul onto our beach. It couldn’t hold up its head. It quivered. Its ruby eyes grew dull. Three hours later it was dead. A neurotoxin had destroyed cells in its liver, kidneys, eyes and brain. That neurotoxin was lead. A lead sinker as small as a split shot will do that.

Loons face hazards we can’t do much about. The contiguous states are on the southern fringe of their range, and global warming may drive them north. Mercury mobilized by acid rain and from fossil fuels poisons them. Boat traffic and shoreline development destroys nests and discourages nesting. On the Great Lakes — especially Lake Erie where nesting has been eliminated — thousands of migrating loons die each year, victims of alien species unleashed by humans. It works like this: zebra and quagga mussels from eastern Europe concentrate naturally occurring botulism bacteria, among the planet’s most lethal toxins. Round gobies from the Black and Caspian Sea regions eat the mussels. Loons eat the gobies.

During cooperative conservation efforts of the (photographic) authors and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, extra fish are stocked at Common Loon breeding lakes, to accommodate the loons and those fishing. Photo © Daniel and Ginger Poleschook
During cooperative conservation efforts of the (photographic) authors and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, extra fish are stocked at Common Loon breeding lakes, to accommodate the loons and those fishing. Photo © Daniel and Ginger Poleschook

Lead fishing tackle, however, is a hazard we can do something about. Non-toxic metals including steel, bismuth, copper and tin are cheap and readily available. Tungsten is relatively expensive but weighs more than lead. Non-toxics hold up better than lead, don’t snag as easily, keep tackle boxes cleaner and are safe for humans. Now there are even ceramic and natural rock sinkers. I shudder to recall all the times I bit shut sinkers and picked lead flecks from my teeth.

Outside the Great Lakes lead tackle is the leading cause of adult-loon mortality. In New Hampshire, for example, 48 percent of dead adult birds turned in to the Loon Preservation Committee were poisoned by lead. The committee and its partners rope off nesting sites, erect buoys and warning signs, deploy nesting rafts, rescue injured and stranded loons, host seminars, and work with dam owners to maintain suitable water levels. But prior to this year’s strict lead-tackle ban six full seasons of nesting-raft management were negated by just 38 pieces of ingested lead.

The only states with lead-tackle regulations are New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York and Washington. Many others, including Minnesota which has slightly more than half of all lower-48 loons, rely only on education.

X-Ray of loon poisoned by lead tackle. Photo courtesy of Dr. Mark Pokras, Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine
X-Ray of loon poisoned by lead tackle. Photo courtesy of Dr. Mark Pokras, Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

“We’ve been educating about this problem since the early 1980s,” declares Loon Preservation Committee director Harry Vogel, “and the only point at which we saw a measurable decrease in lead mortality was when the legislature restricted sale and use. Education by itself doesn’t work because lead tackle remains widely available.” New Hampshire’s ban, strengthened in 2016, outlaws use and sale of lead sinkers and jigs weighing an ounce or less.

A law that looked to be as good as New Hampshire’s went into effect this year in Maine. But after hearings the legislature inserted an exemption for painted jigs in the mistaken notion that paint somehow prevents pebble-filled gizzards from grinding up lead. “We were dumfounded,” says a leading wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Mark Pokras of Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, “That’s a huge loophole.”

“Why not a national ban,” I asked Vogel?

“Unfortunately, lead is widely viewed as a loon problem,” he said. “It’s a wildlife problem; more than two dozen species are poisoned by lead tackle. Most states don’t have loons, so there’s no enthusiasm for tackling this on a national level.”

A long-term territorial male Common Loon shows its legband colors. Banding provides identification for research studies of the species. Common Loons are banded each year in a number of states by Biodiversity Research Institute and its associates. Photo © Daniel and Ginger Poleschook
A long-term territorial male Common Loon shows its legband colors. Banding provides identification for research studies of the species. Common Loons are banded each year in a number of states by Biodiversity Research Institute and its associates. Photo © Daniel and Ginger Poleschook

There was plenty of enthusiasm, however, for shouting down a 2010 petition by environmental groups for a national ban on lead tackle and ammo under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The Recreational Fishing Alliance (funded largely by the tackle industry) called the petition “anti-fishing, anti-fisherman, doomsday protectionism in the name of loons and loony extremists.”

In February 2016 the U.S. House passed the “Sportsmen’s Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act” that would bar EPA and even the Departments of Interior and Agriculture from regulating lead ammo and tackle.

Lead regulation isn’t even happening on most National Park units. In March 2009 the Park Service announced that it would ban lead tackle and ammo by the end of 2010. But a trade group called the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) and the gun lobby caterwauled. So the service backed off, applying the ammo ban only to its employees and requiring contracted concessionaires to restock with non-toxic tackle once they’d sold off their lead.

“National Parks such as Yellowstone and Glacier have long banned lead in most fishing activities, but sadly, these restrictions are not yet widespread,” remarks the Park Service’s chief of biological resources, Elaine Leslie. “There’s plenty of peer-reviewed science and evidence indicating the hazardous impacts of lead to a healthy environment — both in terrestrial and aquatic systems.”

These three-day-old Common Loon chicks huddle together while their parents are underwater searching for food for them. At this age, the chicks are too small to ingest fish, so their parents bring them smaller food, such as dragonfly nymphs, snails and small leaches. Photo © Daniel and Ginger Poleschook
These three-day-old Common Loon chicks huddle together while their parents are underwater searching for food for them. At this age, the chicks are too small to ingest fish, so their parents bring them smaller food, such as dragonfly nymphs, snails and small leaches. Photo © Daniel and Ginger Poleschook

Virtually all fishing organizations and publications that object to non-toxics receive and recycle such ASA fiction as “alternatives materials to lead can cost anglers up to 20 times what current tackle costs.” (The EPA reports that a switch to non-toxic tackle costs the average angler an additional 31 cents per year.)

Six years ago nature photographers Daniel and Ginger Poleschook received death threats when they led a campaign to ban lead tackle in Washington State. ASA opposition derailed effective regulation. So lead is illegal only on Washington lakes where loons are known to nest. But loons ingest lead on the other lakes; and about as many are poisoned there as on nesting lakes.

This column, though, is about recovery. And incredibly, with all they face, loons are recovering in the lower 48. While state lead bans are few and sometimes less than adequate, they’ve helped. Buoys, ropes, warning signs and nesting rafts play a big part. New Hampshire, for instance, has gone from fewer than 100 loon pairs in 1976 to 296; Vermont from 17 pairs in 1984 to 117; Massachusetts from no loons in 1975 to 43 pairs.

Loon nesting raft. Photo © Kittie Wilson
Loon nesting raft. Photo © Kittie Wilson

The Maine-based Biodiversity Research Institute has been netting loon chicks from healthy populations and moving them to depleted habitat where they’re placed in floating, predator-proof hacking pens stocked with live shiners they catch on their own. Over the last three years the institute has moved 17 chicks from northern Minnesota to barren lakes in the southern part of the state. Lakes in southeast Massachusetts got seven birds from upstate New York in 2015, this year four from New York and five from Maine.

With all the restoration effort and the cheap, superior tackle alternatives it’s nonsensical for states or federal agencies to allow lead. “Non-toxic tackle is a no-brainer,” says Pokras. “I don’t understand this opposition from the sportfishing community.”

But when I checked in with the sportfishing community that ASA claims to speak for I encountered only support for non-toxics. Pradco, among the world’s largest tackle manufactures, proudly reported that it had “pretty much eliminated lead.” Pradco and the Bass Pro Shops sell lots of tungsten because, as they explained, it performs better than lead and anglers demand it. L.L.Bean, long noted for environmental responsibility, sells little lead but, apparently buying into the Maine legislature’s superstition that paint protects fish-eating birds, still carries painted lead jigs. In 2015 it discontinued lead sinkers two ounces or less even though the 2016 law permits sale of sinkers over an ounce. Orvis sounded offended that I’d even asked about lead, explaining that it hasn’t sold the poison in years.

Maybe the Park Service’s Elaine Leslie says it best: “The United States is far behind many countries on addressing the lead issue. It is nearly 2017, and it’s time that we, the entire conservation community — which includes hunters and anglers — step up and do the right thing … There are no excuses for our inactions.

Both the male and female Common Loons of a territorial pair provide care of the young until fledging. That is one of the endearing qualities of the species. These chicks swim well even though they are only a few days old. Photo © Daniel and Ginger Poleschook
Both the male and female Common Loons of a territorial pair provide care of the young until fledging. That is one of the endearing qualities of the species. These chicks swim well even though they are only a few days old. Photo © Daniel and Ginger Poleschook

Published on

Join the Discussion

Join the Discussion

Please note that all comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.

76 comments

  1. Aditya Pankaj says:

    Its really a good blog on fishing product online. I appreciate your article. Its important to get quality fishing product online. This blog is really helpful to give a light in this issue. So thanks for sharing all that important information.

  2. Nancy Scott says:

    One step forward two steps back, Ryan Zinke the new Secretary of the Interior just overturned the phasing out of lead in bullets and fishing tackle in public refuges and opening more land to fishing and hunting. He must have read and believes the ASA findings or he’s relying on alternative facts presented to him.

  3. Sue Coulson says:

    I remember hearing loons when I was a child at camp in Maine. Wonderful sound.

  4. Linda Gilmore says:

    Loons are definitely not the only animal endangered by lead. Eagles, osprey and other birds of prey as well as other fish eating animals can be poisoned. I do not understand the reluctance for there to be a national ban on lead used for fishing or hunting since there are better options.

  5. Dr. Sharonah Fredrick says:

    This is fascinating! I first saw loons in Maine, 5 years ago, and they are among our most interesting bird species. With some more good press, and some more insistence on non-lead tackle, I’m sure they can become one of the “pin-up” charismatic animals of the conservation movement. Fine job on this article, and beautiful photographs. Best: baby loons riding bigger parent birds…you should make that one go viral, folks….

  6. Karen Weir says:

    We must save the loons and all other wildlife from lead hazards in tackle and ammo.
    Sporting and manufacturing interests have too much influence with legislatures.
    We must insist on doing what is best for the wildlife and for the planet.

  7. Nena Miller says:

    It is a tragedy that any bird would lose its life to lead ingestion. As humans we realize the horrors of lead poisoning to our bodies. As custodians of this planet; we should be doing everything we can to preserve our eco system. If changing lead in tackle is an answer to a problem then bureaucracy should not be the reason to stall a change.

  8. Anne says:

    I just looked up and read the American Sportfishing Association official position on lead fishing tackle, and also the alleged evidence and reasoning behind their position. Reading it was a major challenge to my hope for the basic intelligence and foresight of the human species. The ASA language should be next to “twaddle” in the dictionary.

  9. George Burnash says:

    Ban lead sinkers.

  10. Donna Kimball says:

    Thank you Ted for sharing your passion and expertise. I plan on printing this out and sharing it at the local store at Loon Lake, WA. If you were here… I’d give you a great big hug for your dedication to the well-being of fish and wildlife. Donna K., Colbert, WA