Lead Sinker Ban Aims To Reduce Loon Deaths

Concord — December 30, 2005 — A state ban on the use of lead tackle for freshwater fishing has failed to reduce the number of loons that die from ingesting the sinkers and jigs each year, Fish and Game Department officials said.

Experts hope a law to take effect Jan. 1 that will ban the sale of lead sinkers smaller than 1 ounce and jigs smaller than 1 inch long will help cut down on the deaths.

New Hampshire became the first state in the nation to regulate lead tackle when the Legislature passed a law in 2000 saying fisherman could be charged up to $250 if caught using it on lakes and ponds.

That year there were 15 loons found dead in New Hampshire, said John Kanter of the Fish and Game Department’s endangered species program. Six of them died of lead poisoning. In 2004, five of the 16 birds found dead were killed by lead. The total population held steady in the last two years at just more than 200 territorial pairs of loons.

Kanter said while some of the dead birds picked up old sinkers from the bottom of the lake when looking for small stones to help digest their food, others have eaten tackle off the lines of anglers still using lead or have eaten fish that were hooked with it and broken free.

“It’s still kind of hook, line and sinker,” he said.

Lead’s pliability makes the tackle easy to pinch onto a fishing line. It’s heavy, so it makes a good sinker, and it’s cheaper than some alternatives. But lead is a known toxin that can kill a loon within weeks of ingestion.

Kanter said the laws include size limits because loons would be unlikely to ingest anything bigger. He said there’s no way of knowing just how many sinkers are sitting on the bottom of lakes and ponds across the state. But he and other experts say they want to do all they can to keep from adding more.

“We really hope that this works, because here’s an issue where there’s an alternative,” he said.

Under the new law, store owners could be fined up to $1,000 for selling the banned tackle. According to a report by the Loon Preservation Committee this year, lead poisoning has caused 58 percent of known loon deaths since the group began monitoring the state’s population in 1975.

Kanter said the state has made a big effort to educate anglers about the danger of lead and the ban on the tackle. Fish and Game and the Department of Environmental Services joined forces to get the word out, distributing brochures, doing on-ice delivery of lead-free gear during ice fishing season and setting up drop-off locations for people to get rid of their tackle safely.

The loon population in New Hampshire has grown more than two-fold since monitoring of the species began about 30 years ago. But in the years that followed the original ban, the population was in decline and lead poisoning continued to be the leading cause of death.

Between 2000 and 2002, lead was responsible for 6.3 percent of the total decline in population, said Joel Harrington, vice president of policy for the Audubon Society of New Hampshire who lobbied to get the new law passed.

Biologists with the Loon Preservation Committee weren’t available for comment this week, but executive director Harry Vogel said in August that the number of surviving loon chicks has declined over the last two years. While collisions with boats and attacks from other loons are more likely than lead to kill chicks, Harrington said lead poisoning damages the reproductive systems of adults and, therefore, can affect the number of chicks born each year.

Legislation passed in 2004 expanded the ban to the state’s rivers and streams and set the ban on the sale of the tackle to take effect Jan. 1, 2006. Harrington said the schedule was designed to give retailers time to get rid of their stock.

The sales ban “is another point where we can prevent the small lead sinkers and lead fishing tackle from spreading throughout the state,” he said.

Several store owners across the state said their shelves are already clear of the banned tackle. W.S. Hunter and Co., which has locations in Concord and New London, has none in stock.

L.L. Cote’s in Errol, which abuts the national wildlife refuge around Lake Umbagog, stopped buying the tackle when its use was banned in 2000 and recently ran out. Manager Kevin Tremblay said some customers are upset about the change because they are unsatisfied with the alternatives to the lead sinkers. Tin sinkers, for example, are lighter and about twice the price, he said. Tremblay compared the change to a ban on lead shotgun shells for hunting waterfowl. The hunters have to pay more for lead-free shells. “They gripe about it all the time,”he said. Like the ban on shells, this new law is something they will have to deal with, Tremblay said.

Kanter still worries about what tackle tourists may bring to New Hampshire.

“You just think of all the people coming to visit, and how would they know?” he said.

He said the state will continue educating tourists and residents alike about the danger lead poses to loons “until we see success.”

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