Concord — June 30, 2011 — Twelve loons died from lead poisoning last year, twice the number from prior years, despite a longtime ban on some lead fishing tackle, the Loon Preservation Committee said yesterday. Seven of the loons died from lead sinkers and jigs that are banned under state law, said Harry Vogel, executive director of the nonprofit. But the other five loons died after ingesting the longer lead jigs that are legal, he said. Vogel said numbers are unprecedented.
“The law does not go far enough,” Vogel said. Neither does compliance, he said. “Loons are swallowing jigs that are legal, and the deadly sinkers and jigs that are not legal are still being used.”
Vogel attributed the increase in loon deaths, in part, to last year’s especially dry, sunny summer. July and August are the peak months in the state for fishing.
“We think the beauty of the summer of 2010 brought more people out on the water,” he said. “The (prior) years, from 2004 to 2009, we had some really wet and rainy summers. And while that is not going to deter a hardcore angler, I think it does deter a more casual angler.”
Loons, numbered at about 275 pairs in the state, are a threatened species in New Hampshire. In 2000, the state banned the use of certain lead tackle to protect the population. It was the first state to do so.
The ban prohibits the use of lead sinkers weighing 1 ounce or less and lead jigs that are less than 1 inch long, including the hook. In 2006, it became illegal to sell that tackle as well. Longer lead jigs, like those found last year in five of the dead loons, remain legal.
Expanding the ban further to include longer jigs would be a challenge; the lead ban has not been wholly popular within the fishing community, and with organizations like American Sportsfishing Association, which has lobbied against lead bans at the federal and state levels.
Anglers say alternatives to lead tackle can be difficult to find, more expensive and not as reliable. Lighter materials like tin require much larger sinkers and jigs made of other substances can break because they are not as flexible.
Alyssa Hausman, a policy fellow with the group who has studied the lead issue, said her organization supports anglers who choose to use alternatives and urges anglers who use lead tackle to secure it well so it doesn’t fall into lakes and ponds where loons can ingest it.
But Hausman said there is too little scientific evidence to justify a nationwide or statewide bans when loons are only part of the larger environmental and economic equation. “When it is a scientifically documented issue, it is very localized,” Hausman said. “And that should be handled by a state authority in a very local way. If you have a hot spot for lead sinker loss and loons ingesting it, that should be addressed.
“But here in the United States, we manage wildlife on a population level,” she continued. “We do acknowledge that if a loon digests lead it will die. But we cannot make big societal and economic decisions based on one (animal) population.”
According to the Loon Preservation Committee, 52 percent of annual loon deaths in New Hampshire are from lead poisoning. Loons swallow lead tackle by eating lead jigs directly off anglers’ lines or eating fish that have been hooked by a jig but broken free from a fishing line. The remaining causes of death include boat collisions (12 percent); loons frozen into the ice (9 percent); entanglement by monofilament line (7 percent); infection and disease (6 percent); wounds from other loons (6 percent); unspecified other causes (6 percent) and shooting (2 percent).
Before the ban, about seven loons a year died from lead poisoning, according to the group, based in Moultonboro. The number dropped to about five to six shortly after the ban and had remained there, Vogel said.
To see the count double in 2010 was alarming, he said. “If we are going to increase the chances for loons, we have to get this word out now,” he said. While the overall loon population has increased in the state, Vogel said breeding loons has not proven as successful as hoped. He believes the loon population remains in danger.
The Loon Preservation Committee does not lobby for new legislation, Vogel said. Instead, it relies on educating locals and visitors.
Vogel suspects anglers from other states may not be adequately aware of the lead ban. Massachusetts, for example, recently passed a ban on lead tackle but has not yet implemented it. The society and the state Department of Fish and Game have distributed fliers explaining the ban and the danger of lead throughout the state, concentrating on water bodies popular with anglers. Emily Brunkhurst, a wildlife biologist with Fish and Game, said her department also tries to get the word out by including the lead law in booklets when fishing licenses are issued.
She said that the availability of alternative types of tackle was initially difficult but has become easier as more states have passed lead bans. When New Hampshire was the only state with a ban, there was not a great call for nonlead tackle. Her department has not taken a position on expanding the ban to include longer jigs. That would be decided only after several conversations among department scientists and then would require the support of the commission that oversees the department.
“It makes it difficult because anglers are going to be concerned if they cannot get the tackle they want,” she said.
Asked whether news of a jump in loon deaths from lead could prompt a discussion about expanding the lead ban, Brunkhurst said it’s possible. But just as important is what the department hears from the public on this issue, she said. “It will be interesting to see what kind of response we get,” she said. “Public opinion around the general public and public opinion around the angling public are both very important to us.”