Lead is a toxic metal that, in sufficient quantities, has adverse effects on the nervous and reproductive systems of mammals and birds. Found in most fishing jigs and sinkers, this metal is poisoning wildlife such as loons and eagles.
But there is hope. There are alternatives to traditional lead tackle. Anglers can now use sinkers and jigs made from non-poisonous materials such as tin, bismuth, steel, and tungsten-nickel alloy — and they can find them at established sporting goods retailers and on the Internet.
Hook, line and sinker
When lead fishing sinkers are lost through broken line or other means, birds can inadvertently eat them. Water birds like loons and swans often swallow lead when they scoop up pebbles from the bottom of a lake or river to help grind their food. Eagles ingest lead by eating fish which have themselves swallowed sinkers.
The dangers of lead poisoning
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, or it may have trouble feeding, mating, nesting, and caring for its young. It becomes emaciated and often dies within two to three weeks after eating the lead.
“Lead has traditionally been used to make sinkers and jigheads because it’s inexpensive and easily molded in a variety of shapes. However, lead has proven to be toxic to fish, birds and other animals (including humans), and lead sinkers and jigs are currently banned in a growing number of states.” (BASS)
What’s the risk? Weigh the evidence
While it is hard to get an accurate count of water birds and birds of prey that die from ingesting lead tackle, current research indicates that lead poisoning is a serious concern.
Research on loons from six New England states has shown that on the majority of lakes where dead adult breeding loons were found between 1987 and 2002, about 26% of these loons died from lead poisoning. Some lakes were identified as hot spots with lead causing over 50% of documented causes of death.
In Michigan, another 15-year study examined 186 dead loons and revealed that lead poisoning — primarily from lead jigs — was the number one cause of death at 24% (44/186) of overall mortality. Limited research in Minnesota has also documented lead poisoning of loons. A study conducted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency concluded that lead poisoning accounted for 12 percent of the dead adult loons with known causes of death.
Between 1980 and 1996, the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota reported lead poisoning in 138 of 650 eagles they treated. Since 1996, 43 additional eagles were treated for lead poisoning including 22 last year. Most of the time, the source of the lead cannot be detected as the birds have cast the material out of their systems. Because lead shot was banned in waterfowl production areas in the early 1990s, bullet fragments in big game carcasses, lead shot lodged in upland game and lead fishing tackle are considered possible sources of lead poisoning of eagles.
Could you tell the difference?
These pebbles and sinkers were found in the gizzard of a lead-poisoned loon. Loons swallow pebbles to help them grind up their food. Unfortunately, sinkers can be similar to the stones the birds are looking for.
Safer fishing tackle can help
Anglers can help prevent lead poisoning.
Inexpensive and ecologically sound alternatives to lead fishing weights are available. Anglers can use sinkers and jigs made from non-poisonous materials such as tin, bismuth, steel, and tungsten-nickel alloy.
A great way to help is teaching good stewardship to young anglers. Outfit kids’ tackle boxes with non-lead weights. They are nontoxic and safer for youngsters to handle. Plus, inexperienced anglers tend to lose the most sinkers, so you’ll be cutting down on the amount of lead getting left behind in Minnesota lakes and rivers.
New regulations and state initiatives
During the 2002-03 session in Minnesota, the state Legislature considered banning the sale and use of lead tackle. But after a series of stakeholder discussions, the groups involved agreed that a better approach was to educate anglers about the alternatives to lead tackle and to offer opportunities to try out non-lead sinkers and jigs. This effort is supported by the cooperation of tackle manufacturers, retailers, lake associations, conservation organizations, sports enthusiasts, and government.
In a growing number of areas outside Minnesota, non-lead tackle isn’t just a good idea — it’s the law. Restrictions and bans of lead fishing sinkers and jigs are becoming more common in the United States and other countries.
Elsewhere in the United States
- Washington prohibits the use of lead weights and jigs on 12 lakes in the state where loons breed and raise their young. Anglers cannot use lead weights smaller than 1.5 inches.
- New Hampshire banned the use and sale of lead fishing sinkers that weigh less than an ounce and lead jigs smaller than an inch.
- Maine and New York have banned the sale of lead sinkers weighing a half-ounce or less.
- In 2004, the Vermont Legislature passed a bill banning the sale (January 2006) of lead sinkers weighing 1/2 ounce or less, and then the use (January 2007) of those lead sinkers in the state.
- Massachusetts Fisheries & Wildlife Board prohibits the use of lead sinkers, weights and jigs.
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has banned lead sinkers in two national wildlife refuges and Yellowstone National Park; restrictions have been discussed on the use of lead sinkers and jigs at other national wildlife refuges where loons and trumpeter swans breed.
- Great Britain restricted the use of lead fishing weights weighing less than 1 ounce.
- In Canada, you can’t use lead fishing sinkers or jigs in Canada’s national parks and wildlife areas.
Tips for anglers to help safeguard wildlife and human health
- Use non-lead fishing weights. Inexpensive and ecologically sound alternatives to lead fishing weights are available. Anglers should use sinkers and jigs made from non-hazardous materials such as steel, tin and bismuth.
- Never throw old fishing gear into the water or shore. Discard old lead sinkers and jigs properly. For example, bring them to your local household hazardous waste collection site during your next visit.
- Never put a lead sinker in your mouth or bite down on slip shot—use a pair of pliers instead!
- Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling lead sinkers or cleaning out your tackle box.
- Spread the word. Tell other anglers about the problem, and encourage them to switch to non-lead sinkers and jigs. Talk to your favorite retailers and ask them to stock non-lead fishing tackle.