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The Unleaded Loon

Jason Reimers June 12, 2014

Lead is toxic. To help prevent children from getting lead poisoning by ingesting paint chips, we banned lead paint. To keep lead out of the air we breathe, you can’t buy leaded gasoline like you used to. We have made significant progress in reducing human exposure to lead. We need to do the same for wildlife, because lead is just as toxic to animals as it is to humans.

Let’s start with our fishing tackle. If you fish like I fish, you lose sinkers, jigs, and hooks all the time (not to mention spending half the time untangling fishing line). Historically, a lot of fishing tackle has been made of lead. The lead fishing tackle that we lose ends up on the bottom of our lakes, and that is where birds like loons find it, ingest it, and become poisoned. Think about how many sinkers you have lost to the bottom of our lakes.

Some states, including New Hampshire, have taken steps to protect wildlife. Last year, New Hampshire passed a law banning the sale and use of lead sinkers weighing one ounce or less and lead jigs measuring less than one inch in length. The penalty for using a banned sinker or jig is $250. Other states have similar—but not identical—restrictions, including Maine, Vermont, and New York.

In New Hampshire, it appears that loons have borne the brunt of the damage from lead. Loons purposely swallow pebbles to help grind up food in their stomachs. They ingest the sinkers and jigs along with the pebbles they scoop up, as the small sinkers and jigs are similar in size and appearance to the pebbles. Once a loon swallows a sinker, the loon can sicken or die of lead poisoning within a few weeks.

The Loon Preservation Committee’s data indicate that approximately half of all adult loon deaths between 1989-2011 were due to ingesting lead tackle. I’m no scientist, but it seems to me that we will have a lot more loons if we take the simple step of getting the lead out of our tackle boxes.

Of course, I am assuming that you like loons. If loons aren’t your thing, surely you like bald eagles. Lead sinkers and jigs are also a threat to bald eagles, mallard ducks, great blue herons, and snapping turtles. (I hesitate to mention that lead is also bad for Canada geese, as you may see them as pests you want to see fewer of.)

The good news is that you don’t need lead tackle to catch fish. There are lead-free alternatives. Even though the law still allows larger sinkers and jigs and other lead items, why not just go lead free altogether? Don’t bother measuring or weighing your gear or figuring out what sizes you can use in what states. Just stop now. Go unleaded.

Ask your retailer to stock lead-free jigs and sinkers, if he or she does not already do so. If you are a retailer, stock these items now and encourage your customers to use them. Take your old lead tackle to the transfer station and dispose of it properly, as it is toxic. You can also drop it off at Fish and Game offices (there is one in Keene) and at state fish hatcheries.

Finally, I know it’s not hunting season, but the same lead issues exist for lead in bullets. Lead shot that is left in a carcass is ingested by scavenging animals. The Iead shot can also be ingested by humans. I have bitten into a small bullet fragment that was in a delicious piece of venison. I don’t know if it was lead, but it illustrates how lead moves through the ecosystem and up the food chain. Get the lead out!

Jason Reimers is an attorney with BCM Environmental & Land Law, PLLC, in Concord, and a member of the Board of Directors of the New Hampshire Lakes Association.