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Lead fishing tackle ingested by fish is killing loons and other birds

By Samantha Stark

Lead’s widespread use has resulted in worldwide environmental contamination, human exposure and significant public health problems.

Lead is an extremely toxic element that, over the years, has been removed from water pipes, gasoline, paint and other sources due to extensive health issues in humans, animals and the environment. Yet toxic lead is still entering the food chain through widespread use of lead fishing tackle.

Thousands of cranes, ducks, swans, loons, geese and other waterfowl ingest lead fishing tackle that was lost in lakes and rivers each year, often resulting in deadly consequences.

“All it takes is one small lead jig to kill a loon,” said Phil Votruba, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) watershed project manager. “It doesn’t take much.”

The poisoning truth

It the late 1800s, lead poisoning was recognized as a mortality factor in waterfowl from fishing sinkers and jig heads during normal feeding activities.

When lead fishing sinkers are lost through broken lines or other means, waterfowl can unintentionally eat them while scooping up 

pebbles to help natural food digestion from the bottom of lakes and rivers or along shorelines. In addition, birds (such as eagles) may ingest lead by consuming fish that have swallowed sinkers.

“It’s mostly the birds that are affected because their system actually breaks the lead down to the point that it gets in their blood system,” Votruba said. “It’s not the fish or the mammals that are affected, it’s the birds, and specifically in Minnesota, it’s the loons and eagles.”

When the lead reaches the acidic environment of the gizzard in loons and other waterfowl, it is worn down, dissolved and absorbed into body tissues. Once the lead reaches toxic levels in the tissues, muscle paralysis and associated complications result in death.

Birds with lead poisoning will eventually have physical and behavioral changes, including loss of balance, gasping, tremors and impaired ability to fly. It then becomes emaciated, due to its inability to feed and nest, then often dies within two to three weeks after lead consumption.

“There is lead on lakes’ floors in the sediments from lost fishing tackle. When a fish eats that lead and a water bird eats that fish, or if a loon eats a lead sinker or jig, that small amount is enough to kill them,” Votruba said.

Fishing for evidence

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) disagreed and proposed a nationwide ban on the manufacture, sale and use of small lead sinkers in 1994. But after a groundswell of public opposition, the agency withdrew its proposal because there was not enough data to support it.

The American Sportfishing Association (ASA) supported EPA’s withdrawal and addressed that “before further laws are enacted to restrict lead fishing tackle on a state or national basis, sufficient data must exist to demonstrate that discarded lead tackle is an actual threat to the sustainability of loon or other water bird populations.”

Shortly after EPA’s withdrawal, four eastern states (New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine) imposed some type of lead ban to address their own loon-mortality problems. Although, Minnesota didn’t jump on the bandwagon and no restrictions were established in Minnesota to address the lead tackle poisoning.

A study by the American Ornithologists Union (AOU) concluded that the population trend for 

loons in the United States is stable to increasing in 12 of the 14 states where loons live.

In the 1980s, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimated the state’s loon population to be 10,000 birds. Currently, there are roughly 12,000 adult loons in Minnesota, according to the DNR annual loon monitoring survey. This concluded that the common loon population remained healthy and striving in index areas.

In addition, the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota has monitored injured bald eagles for lead since 1980. Lead poisoning has been the cause of admission of 315 out of a total of 1,398 eagles, or 23 percent. Eagles become exposed when they consume fish that have ingested lead tackle.

A study conducted by the MPCA concluded that lead poisoning in Minnesota accounts for 12 percent of the dead adult loons with known causes of death. In addition, a study done by the Minnesota Zoo in 1998 showed similar results to those of the MPCA study.

Four loons out of 46 tested had lead poisoning and three of those (6.5 percent) had ingested lead sinkers. Three of the loons that were counted as fatalities from lead poisoning also had potentially lethal levels of mercury. The report’s author, avian zoologist Jimmy Pichner, concluded that “lead 

poisoning does not appear to be a major cause of loon mortality in Minnesota.”

Then in 2006, a study published by the DNR asked anglers what tackle they have lost from bite-offs and snags throughout the day. It concluded that between 1983 and 2004, anglers have dumped more than two tons into Rainy Lake and Lake of the Woods and more than nine tons into Lake Mille Lacs.

All together, the Minnesota studies analyzed 102 dead adult loons for lead poisoning and found that only 5.8 percent (6 birds) had died from ingesting lead sinkers.

In 1999, a study published by the National Wildlife Health Research Center (NWHRC) in Madison, Wis., examined 2,749 birds of 30 species. Of these, 313 were healthy, sick or dead common loons collected from nine states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Maine, New York, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Florida, California and Alaska.

The results showed 23 out of the 2,749 radiographed birds (including 11 out of 313 loons) had ingested lead sinkers. In all, 1.9 percent of the loons tested (6 of 313) died of lead-tackle ingestion.

The studies determined that there wasn’t a large enough lead poisoning mortalities linked to lead sinkers to establish any restrictions on lead tackle. 

Lead poisoning was too far down on the list of waterfowl mortality causes in Minnesota and mandatory transitioning to non-lead fishing tackle would require significant and costly changes from both the manufactures and anglers. In addition, to many anglers, a lead ban would mean junking most of the tackle they already own.

The ASA acknowledged that lead toxicosis can kill waterfowl, and lead fishing tackle contributes to this mortality but not large enough contributors to ban lead tackle nationally. Although, several states around the United States made state bans that add restrictions or ban lead tackle completely.

Tackling the problem

In Minnesota, there is currently no bans on the sale or use of lead weights and jigs. In many states, non-lead tackle isn’t just a good idea but the law.

Instead of banning lead tackle, the MPCA, MDNR and other governmental entities agreed that a better approach was to educate anglers about the alternatives to lead tackle and offer opportunities to try non-lead sinks and jigs.

Even though there isn’t large enough decrease in waterfowl population due solely to lead tackle to 

make a national or state ban, it doesn’t mean anglers shouldn’t make the change. Even just one waterfowl is too many to die from lead tackle, Votruba said.

“We aren’t getting the big outcry that you would assume to see from the public because everyone likes to see their loons, but they don’t know what one lead sinker can do to a loon,” he added.

Seven to eight years ago, the DNR received a report of a loon that hadn’t migrated and was stranded on a frozen lake. Earlier the next morning, the loon was taken to Garrison Animal Hospital and was diagnosed with lead poisoning by a lead jig. The loon died shortly after diagnosis.

In response, the DNR and MPCA partnered with retailers, lake associations and conservation and outdoors groups to create the “Get the Lead Out” program that offered lead tackle exchanges across the state.

The exchanges were designed to be educational and give anglers a chance to try out non-toxic tackle and compare them against lead versions.

Tragically, due to loss of funding, the program was shut down and now it’s just an educational encouragement to all anglers to clean out their tackle box of lead.

“The whole education component of the MPCA, some of the funds kind of disappeared from that and that specific part of the MPCA,” Votruba said. “We just don’t have the campaigns, nor do we go out to the local tackle shops because we just don’t have that funding to do so.”

The sinking sales

After the initial spike of awareness faded, anglers slowly lost interest and care for non-lead fishing tackles.

“A lot of people don’t like to use it because it doesn’t work as well as the lead,” said Marty Kumpula, sales associate at Lakes Sport Shop in Detroit Lakes. “Lead is smaller and sinks faster.”

The non-lead options provided by tackle manufactures and suppliers are anywhere from 10 percent to double the cost of lead tackle.

“They aren’t very popular besides tungsten, but it’s still twice the cost of lead,” Kumpula added.

Non-lead options for weights and jigs consist of tungsten, stainless steel, tungsten composite, 

bismuth, glass and tin.

“It’s very rare to find sinkers and jigs made out of anything besides lead,” Votruba said.

Lakes Sport Shop has had little sales in these alternative non-lead options.

“It’s really disheartening when you go to outdoor stores and not see a huge section of non-lead tackle options,” Votruba said. “It will be a very small section or it won’t even exist.”

Reeling in the change

MPCA and DNR encourages everyone to try non-toxic fishing tackle because the less lead anglers release into the environment, the better off waterfowl and all wildlife will be. Everyone should speak out and spread the word to stop using lead fishing tackle and ask their retailers to restock or create a non-lead fishing tackle section.

“It’s still promoted but not as much as it should be,” Votruba said. “Even if one fisherman uses non-

lead tackle and saves one loon’s life, that is enough to make a difference.”

For more information about non-lead tackle, visitpca.state.mn.us or dnr.state.mn.us.

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