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
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
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
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?''
LAWS OR EDUCATION?
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
Hampshire banned the use and sale of lead sinkers
and jigs that weigh less than an ounce and jigs 1
inch long or shorter.
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.
banned the use of small lead fishing sinkers and jigs
in national parks and national wildlife areas.
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
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
"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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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.''