Minnesota anglers encouraged to "get the lead


Mar 11, 2001
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May. 05, 2002  

Poison in the tackle box


Open most any tackle box and you're likely to find lead sinkers and jigs, basic gear used by many anglers.

Open up some dead loons and eagles found in the Northland and you might find the same stuff.

Over the past decade, evidence has been mounting that loons are dying from lead poisoning caused in some cases when the birds eat lead fishing tackle, usually small sinkers and jigs.

One New England researcher found that lead tackle accounts for more than 50 percent of loon deaths in that region.

A Minnesota Pollution Control Agency study showed about 17 percent of dead loons sent to research centers for autopsies died from lead poisoning.

A Michigan study found 20 percent of dead loons studied had succumbed to lead poisoning.

And Minnesota raptor experts note that, despite a 20-year-old ban on lead shot for waterfowl hunters, the number of eagles dying from lead poisoning here hasn't declined. Some researchers say that might be because eagles are eating waterfowl, such as loons and diving ducks, that have ingested lead fishing tackle.

Millions of lead sinkers and leadhead jigs -- weighted hooks -- are produced and used each year. It's not known how many end up in lakes. But almost every angler has snags that break off, and most have seen sinkers fall into the lake.

Now, with opening day Saturday, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, conservation groups and others are asking anglers to clean out their tackle boxes and replace their sinkers and even their jigs with unleaded alternatives -- which will cost more money but could save some wildlife.

The issue hit home a year ago for Pam Perry, the DNR's nongame specialist in Brainerd and the state's Loon Watch coordinator.

Perry received a loon too sick to fly that had been rescued from a partially frozen lake near Bovey. An X-ray revealed a lead jig in the bird's stomach.

The loon had high levels of lead in its blood, showed classic signs of lead poisoning and died even after the jig was removed by a veterinarian.

"I knew about the issue of lead sinkers and jigs before that. But that one loon, that's what really made me think this is probably a problem out there,'' Perry said. "How many loons are getting lead poisoning and just wandering off in the weeds to die?''


A federal effort to ban lead sinkers flickered in the mid-1990s when the Environmental Protection Agency considered acting.

But that effort faded. And federal, Minnesota and Wisconsin governments have passed no laws to keep lead tackle out of lakes.

Except in Yellowstone National Park and 13 wildlife refuges under the control of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency, the U.S. government took no action. There are no plans for any new federal action, as the EPA has moved to push for voluntary efforts to get lead out of lakes.

But some states have been moving, and Canada and Great Britain have taken stronger action:

New Hampshire banned the use and sale of lead sinkers and jigs that weigh less than an ounce and jigs 1 inch long or shorter.

Maine banned the sale of lead sinkers that weigh less than half an ounce, but it doesn't prohibit the use or possession of lead sinkers.

Canada banned the use of small lead fishing sinkers and jigs in national parks and national wildlife areas.

Great Britain banned the use of lead sinkers in 1987.

Minnesota has chosen an educational campaign, an effort encouraging anglers to "Get The Lead Out'' when they fish.

The Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance and now the Department of Natural Resources have been leading efforts that include giving free samples of lead-free sinkers at sports shows and other events.

Some conservation groups have handed out free unleaded sinkers on Northland lakes.

Minnesota has about 12,000 loons, the most of any state besides Alaska, and the population appears to be stable. But supporters of alternatives to lead say that doesn't mean a problem doesn't exist.

"I think we're slowly reaching more and more people that this is a problem,'' said Kevin McDonald of the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance. "But it's a long process. And we don't have a big budget.''

The state agency also has been working with some tackle manufacturers in Minnesota to promote the sale of nontoxic tackle.

Even as states act on their own, however, some supporters of a lead ban say it's only a matter of time until the federal government orders lead out of fishing tackle as it has most other products, such as paint, gasoline and shotgun shells.

The EPA already has issued warnings to people who make lead sinkers and tackle in their homes that they could be contaminating their families with gases from molten lead. The EPA estimates that about 1 million people make lead tackle at home, handling -- and often mishandling -- 900 tons of lead sinkers annually.

California even warns anglers to wash their hands after handling lead sinkers.

"Most fishermen probably aren't thinking about it. But after what we saw with (waterfowl) dying of lead poisoning from lead shot, it wasn't much of a jump to think of lead tackle as a legitimate threat,'' said Carrol Henderson, director of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources nongame wildlife program. "Lead in any form is a poison -- in gas, paint, in shotgun shells, even in jigs and sinkers. The more of it we can keep out of the environment, the better.''


While only a few studies have been conclusive, some research shows a definite link between lead tackle and loon deaths.

Scientists at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine have examined hundreds of dead adult loons from fresh water over the past decade, and they determined that more than half died from lead poisoning from the ingestion of lead fishing gear.

A single split-shot sinker has enough lead to poison a loon.

"I'm a bit disappointed and a bit amazed at the lack of action,'' said Mark Pokras, director of the wildlife clinic at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

Pokras' continuing research, with nearly 700 loons studied, shows that about 54 percent are dying from lead poisoning in his region. In some areas of heavy fishing pressure, 84 percent of adult loons are dying from lead. Across the loon's range in the northern United States and Canada, Pokras said, other studies show the number is consistently 25 percent or higher.

"Most environmental problems are complicated, but this one is simple. If a loon eats lead, it dies,'' Pokras said. "The solution is simple, too. Use another material other than lead. Yet we still haven't fixed the problem.''

A bird with lead poisoning will have physical and behavioral changes, including loss of balance, gasping, tremors and impaired ability to fly. The weakened bird is more vulnerable to predators and may have trouble feeding, nesting and caring for its young. It becomes emaciated, and it often dies within three weeks after eating lead.

There are at least two ways loons could be ingesting lead sinkers. One is when loons snatch minnows being used as bait, though this is probably more rare. In eating the minnow, the loon breaks off the line and then swallows the hook, line and sinker.

Pokras said two-thirds of all loons X-rayed had some sort of fishing tackle in their stomachs, from hooks and line to sinkers and swivels.

A second, more likely, way loons eat sinkers appears to be when loons ingest pebbles from lake bottoms and inadvertently swallow lead sinkers or are selecting the sinkers, perhaps because of their size, shape or shine.

Loons and diving ducks use the grit for digestion.

Eagles can pick up the lead when they eat the waterfowl.


While not always easy to find, substitutes for lead tackle are available.

"I think the products are out there,'' Perry said. "And considering how small a percentage of the angler's dollar is spent on sinkers, another dollar or so a year isn't a big deal. Most people will do it.''

But jigs are another matter. Only a few nontoxic models are available, and even supporters say they aren't as good as most lead-head jigs for specialty fishing techniques.

Lead is perfect for jigs and sinkers because it's heavy and easily molded and it doesn't rust. Finding a replacement has been tough.

And price remains a barrier, said Geoff Ratte, sales manager for Water Gremlin. The White Bear Lake, Minn., sinker maker, one of the largest in the nation, said higher prices for unleaded sinkers has accounted for lower sales.

"It's been less than 5 percent of our business,'' Ratte said of the company's nontoxic lines.

Supporters of unleaded tackle say anglers aren't using the products because they can't find them, then sales remain low and manufacturers and retailers lose interest. Many small bait shops don't stock any alternatives to lead.

Water Gremlin was among the first U.S. companies to market nonlead sinkers, launching its Gremlin Green line of sinkers in 1993. The split-shot sinkers are made from tin, while specialty sinkers (bullet- and egg-shaped) are made with a special plastic compound mixed with iron powder.

But lead costs Water Gremlin just 30 cents per pound. Tin is about $3 per pound. Translated in the store: Lead split-shot sinkers are about 99 cents per pack of about 20 sinkers, depending on size. Tin split shots are $1.99 for 16 sinkers. That's double the price for 20 percent fewer sinkers.

There's also some problems with performance, especially with the plastic and iron product.

"If you are using a split shot under a bobber, it doesn't matter,'' Ratte said. "But for trolling or in moving water, you have to go to a larger size, and that affects resistance and how it works.''

Despite the lethargic sales so far, Water Gremlin will unveil a new line of nontoxic bismuth sinkers this summer at fishing tackle trade shows. They'll be available to anglers in 2003.

"It fishes better than what we've had,'' Ratte said. "But bismuth still is ten times more expensive as a raw product. And, until anglers are convinced it's needed, and that it fishes as well, they probably won't switch.''

Ratte said the scientific evidence so far probably doesn't warrant the lead bans that have been passed. But he said the company will be ready if a national ban comes.

"There may indeed be some problems for individual loons. But the population of loons is strong, so it's not a wide issue,'' Ratte said. "We'd rather see a single, national regulation if it's going to happen, to make it uniform. But, in my opinion, it's really not needed, not from what we know now.''

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