Let Them Eat Tin

Let Them Eat Tin

Or some other substitute for the dangerous lead in fishing tackle.

  • By: Ted Williams
  • Photography by: Mark Pokras
Loon X-Ray

On a may pre-dawn in 2009 i held a quivering loon in my arms. It had crawled out of Big Island Pond and onto my beach, where it sought shelter against my canoe—a bad start to the day, because loons are a recent addition to this busy southern-New Hampshire lake. When I came in from fishing it had died of plumbism.

Plumbism (lead poisoning) in wildlife is caused almost entirely by ammunition and fishing tackle. The most common victims of tackle are birds that eat fish or dabble in bottom muck. Because they lack teeth they “chew” their food with gizzards, ingesting pebbles to aid the process. Frequently they mistake lost sinkers or jigheads for pebbles; in fact, they key in on them. Even more frequently, they eat lead-toting fish that have broken off anglers’ lines.

Lead is a neurotoxin that destroys cells in the brain, liver, kidneys, eyes and muscles. People usually survive plumbism, albeit with diminished mental and motor function. Wildlife, which requires all such capacity to make it in the natural world, invariably dies.

A loon, eagle, osprey, kingfisher, swan, goose, gull, tern, cormorant, anhinga, ibis, wood stork, grebe, pelican, vulture, egret, heron, diving duck or dabbling duck that ingests a single lead split-shot no bigger than one you’d use to sink a streamer usually receives a fatal dose. Victims become emaciated and anemic; their esophagi swell; their feces turns bright green; their lungs congest; their heads and wings droop; they stagger and quiver, then expire. Other piscivores and scavengers, including turtles, otters and minks, are being poisoned, too.

The U.S. Geological Survey reports that, “about 4,382 metric tons of lead sinkers are sold each year in the United States.” So they must be accumulating, and certainly not in tackle boxes.

The American Bird Conservancy estimates that 10 million to 20 million birds and other animals die each year from plumbism caused by lead fishing tackle, bullet fragments and shot. (For the ammo part of the story see my column, “Bad Shot,” in the May Audubon at audubonmagazine.org.) There’s no precise data because most poisoned animals are never found. They either die in remote locations or are scarfed by predators or scavengers that, in turn, may be poisoned. With friends in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service I participated in an exercise in which 100 dead birds were scattered over six acres of open fields. A day later 15 of us searching hard for two hours could find parts of only 11.

So the 50-plus lead-poisoned loons necropsied last year at Tufts University’s Wildlife Clinic in Grafton, Massachusetts represent only a tiny fraction of birds that annually die of plumbism in New England, where lead tackle is the major killer of loons. The clinic’s Dr. Mark Pokras showed me dozens of X-rays in which sinkers and jigheads were plainly visible in avian digestive tracts.

In the year 2000, New Hampshire became the first state to address the crisis, banning lead sinkers that weigh less than an ounce or lead jigs less than an inch long. Birds swallow sinkers that weigh more than an ounce, but rarely. The jig standard, however, is grossly inadequate, submits Harry Vogel, director of the state’s Loon Preservation Committee, explaining that because of that standard and non-compliance by anglers, loons are dying as fast as ever. In 2010 the committee picked up 12 loons fatally poisoned by lead tackle (again, likely a tiny fraction of the victims).

When I asked Vogel if loons could be finding the lead during migration, he reminded me that they reach their breeding grounds quickly and that they’re territorial. “They’re poisoned in New Hampshire,” he said. But could it be with pre-ban lead? No. Lead sinks into the mud where dabbling waterfowl can get it, but not loons. If loons were picking up old lead, you’d expect die-offs in April. Instead the biggest die-offs come in high summer.

More sensible, though long overdue, is the Massachusetts regulation (effective January 1, 2012) that prohibits lead jigs and lead sinkers weighing less than an ounce. Lead tackle has also been partially or completely banned in Canada, Great Britain, Washington state, Maine, New York, Vermont, Virginia, Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park and the following national wildlife refuges: Bear Lake, Idaho; Union Slough, Iowa; Rachel Carson, Maine; Assabet River, Massachusetts; Seney, Michigan; Red Rock Lakes, Montana; Rappahannock River Valley, Virginia; and Patuxent, Maryland.

In 1994 the EPA proposed a nationwide ban on manufacture, importation and distribution of lead sinkers less than 25 millimeters (.984 inches) in length. But in the face of vicious lobbying by the tackle industry, the agency quickly abandoned its effort.

In March 2009 the National Park Service announced that it would ban lead tackle and ammo from all national parks by the end of 2010. The American Sportfishing Association (ASA) got its back up. And the National Rifle Association, U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance and the National Shooting Sports Foundation (a gun and ammo trade group) shrieked about yet another secret plot by the vile, ubiquitous antis to end all hunting and fishing. So the Park Service backed off, applying the ammo ban only to its own people and ordering vendors on park properties to restock with nontoxic tackle once they’d unloaded their poison.

On January 5, 2011 Connecticut state Senator Ed Meyer (D-Guilford) introduced a bill to ban lead sinkers and jigs. While he’d have been well advised to set a minimum size limit, from the reaction he got you’d have thought he was trying to decriminalize child porn. “There is no scientific data to support such a ban,” proclaimed the ASA, calling to mind the tobacco industry’s assertions that no evidence linked cigarettes to lung and heart damage. ASA’s statement was parroted, sans quotations marks and as news, by the World Fishing Network. The Bass Anglers Sportsman Society announced that “comparable alternatives to lead sinkers and jigs” are lacking. There are currently 22.

“We are not aware of any evidence suggesting that lead in fishing tackle has an effect on the population level of any species of fish or wildlife in our state,” Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection commissioner Amey Marrella told the press, not mentioning the facts that no one had really looked or that her agency has a responsibility to prevent environmental contamination and needless wildlife deaths regardless of population trends. Marrella then echoed the industry’s allegations about financial “burdens” anglers would supposedly suffer.

With his bill as moribund as a lead-stuffed loon, Meyer pulled it. “I will be bringing it back,” he told me. “We hope to educate the public about the dangers of lead.”

What exactly are these financial “burdens” the ASA and its LISTSERV keep complaining about? In New Hampshire I have been forced to use nontoxic sinkers for 11 years. They work just as well as lead, and they don’t discolor my tackle box. I’ll now confess that I fish with bait almost as much as with flies. All my bait fishing is in Big Island Pond, and all for yellow and white perch. I love it, but I don’t consider it sport in the way I consider fly-fishing sport. More like gardening. In 30 years my brother-in-law, Barry Reed, and I have never failed to catch enough perch to feed our extended family and island friends (10 to 25 people) on summer Saturdays. No one I know uses nontoxic sinkers more than I do, yet somehow I have managed to remain solvent. I estimate my financial burden from New Hampshire’s lead-sinker ban at $3 annually, give or take a dollar.

The University of Vermont’s Legislative Research Shop projects that a switch to nontoxics would cost the average angler between $2 and $5 a year. My estimated financial burden and the university’s are positively ruinous compared with the EPA’s estimate of 31 cents per angler. While the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife doesn’t offer figures, it reports that “ecologically safe alternatives . . . are now readily available at cost-comparable prices to lead sinkers and come in a wide variety of styles, shapes, weights, and sizes to meet every type of fishing need.”

I have tremendous respect for the ASA, which has been an effective and unyielding force for fisheries conservation. But it’s a trade group, and trade groups by nature are driven by their loudest and least enlightened members. By no means does the ASA speak for the whole sport-fishing industry, as Orvis and L.L. Bean will attest.

Orvis’ rod-and-tackle specialist, Rick Wagner, was actually surprised that I was asking about poisonous tackle. “Orvis hasn’t sold lead in years and years,” he remarked. As a more efficient and more aerodynamic and hydrodynamic substitute for split-shot, it sells putty laced with tungsten powder. When I inquired about all those other alternatives simultaneously alleged to be nonexistent and financially burdensome, Wagner said: “We have tin split-shot and brass or tungsten bead-heads and cone-heads. Our weighting wire for fly-tying is tin.” Orvis offers two dozen small brass barbell eyes for $2.95. Feather-Craft (which has plenty of nontoxic materials, too) offers barbell eyes of the same size in lead for the same price. Tin weighting wire is available from Orvis at $3.25 per half-ounce spool. You save $1.45 if you buy the same spool in lead from Fly Shack (which also offers plenty of nontoxic materials). But ask yourself how many spools you go through a year.

L.L. Bean sells lead sinkers and lures, but few. The sinkers—mostly for the sea—are well above the half-ounce minimum limit imposed by state law; and most of the lures are too big to be easily swallowed by birds. Product developer Jeff Miller told me this: “We’ve pretty much eliminated lead. Industry-wide it’s common to move away from lead dumbbells, for example. The advantage is durability, particularly in flies. I think anyone who fishes with Clousers has hit rocks or the boat and broken the dumbbells. Lead is dull gray, and paint chips off easily. You can do a much better job of finishing the eyes on nontoxic metals.”

But what about bassin’ men? Some can barely lift their tackle boxes. I imagined they’d be out some significant coin if they had to trash all their lead bullet weights and jig-n-pigs. So I consulted Mike Huffman, at Johnny Morris’ original Bass Pro Shop, in Springfield, Missouri. Bass Pro sells lots of nontoxic tungsten worm weights, he said—not because bass anglers have gone green (though many have), but because tungsten performs better. It’s a lot more dense, so you need less of it. “The fly guys haven’t really taken advantage of tungsten yet,” he said. “In Europe they put tungsten powder in rubber sheeting, and you can wrap that on instead of lead. Tungsten’s not flexible, so it doesn’t make good split-shot unless you add some other metal. But I slide tungsten beads onto my tippet, keeping them above the fly with a knot. And we sell tin sinkers that look like sticks and stones colored in stream-bottom camouflage.”

It happens that Huffman is an accomplished fly fisher. Maybe he didn’t have the precise bassin’ perspective. So I consulted Lawrence Taylor, PR director of Pradco, the huge manufacturer of lures that owns Bomber, Cordell, Rebel, Booyah, Heddon, Lazy Ike, Creek Chub, YUM, Arbogast and Silver Thread. “We’ve pretty much eliminated lead in everything we do,” he said. “All our weights in the Excalibur line are tungsten. We’ve changed all the rattles in the crankbaits to tungsten with the exception of two baits [unlikely to be swallowed by birds anyway].”

Tungsten is more expensive than lead, and when I asked Taylor what kind of a reaction Pradco was getting from all the allegedly “burdened” bass anglers, he said they were happy about the switch, in fact driving it: “The bottom line is effectiveness. Tungsten is almost twice as heavy as lead. You’re streamlining. You might be talking 30 percent more in price. We’ve already made the transition, and we’re doing fine. We’ve taken a proactive approach. I’m not certain I agree with the science behind the proposed ban, but it looks like it’s going to happen sometime.”

The “proposed ban” Taylor refers to appeared August 3, 2010 in the form of a petition submitted to the EPA by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), the American Bird Conservancy, the Association of Avian Veterinarians, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and Project Gutpile (a group of hunters who promote the use of copper bullets and burying gut piles of field-dressed game killed with lead). Despite the strident objections of the American Bird Conservancy, the CBD (which conceived and directed the petition) called for a ban on sale and manufacture of all lead tackle and ammo no matter how big, no matter where it was used, and no matter what it was used for. Not only was a complete ban unnecessary, it was a political impossibility. It seems inconceivable that the CBD didn’t know this.

Groups like the NRA, the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the Recreational Fishing Alliance seized on the petition for fund-raising. “It’s simply more anti-fishing, anti-fisherman, doomsday protectionism in the name of loons and loony extremists,” wrote RFA director Jim Donofrio.

To the gun lobby and the RFA all environmental groups are “extremist,” but the CBD really is.  For example, it flings lawsuits at federal resource agencies like wedding rice, then gets to collect attorneys’ fees when the overworked and understaffed defendants fail to respond properly or on time. While it’s hard to determine how much this costs taxpayers, the CBD’s 2009 annual report lists $1,173,517 in income under “legal settlement.”

The CBD argues that it uses the money to do good things, and it often does. On the other hand, the lawsuits (some meritless) tie up agency personnel and resources so that other fish and wildlife species in desperate trouble can’t be managed. In January 2011, for instance, the CBD sued the EPA and Fish and Wildlife Service for “failure” to sufficiently study “harmful” pesticides, including rotenone, probably the most studied and safest of all pesticides and the only efficient tool for preventing imperiled fish from being hybridized or competed off the planet. In 80 years of use in fisheries management there is no record of it harming a human or permanently affecting a native ecosystem other than to restore it. In an earlier lawsuit the CBD derailed full recovery of the rarest trout in North America, the Paiute cutthroat, by frightening the Forest Service into abandoning long-planned rotenone use.

The CBD’s all-or-nothing lead petition enabled the worst enemies of sportsmen to masquerade as their friends. For example, 78 members of the Congressional Sportsmen’s Caucus (basically a green-washing machine for anti-environmentalists) seized the opportunity to sign a letter to the EPA urging rejection of the petition. The EPA swiftly complied, shooting it down in a terse note that almost beat the CBD’s mail person back from the post office. Still, caucus member Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA) somehow divined that the CBD’s effort was “the latest example of the Obama Administration’s assault on Rural America.” And caucus members Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR, defeated last November) and Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) introduced bills that that would strip the EPA of authority to regulate fishing tackle and ammo. At this writing Broun’s bill has 36 co-sponsors.

Thanks to the CBD any intelligent, limited control of toxic tackle and ammo is now unlikely. Predictably, the CBD has filed suit against the EPA. The American Bird Conservancy declined to participate.

So the vitriol elicited by the petition is at least understandable, if disappointing in its gross inaccuracies. Most of that vitriol issued from the ASA, and all of it was imbibed and regurgitated by sportsmen’s groups, the hook-and-bullet press, sporting goods retailers and even mainstream media. The Washington Times called the petition “a plot to undermine hunting and fishing.” Florida Sportsman Magazine laid the blame on birders, titling its screed “Birding Groups Try to Ban Lead Fishing Tackle.” Cabela’s, widely known for its significant conservation efforts, issued an alert to its customers that repeated ASA’s warning. And the Michigan United Conservation Clubs, heroes of that state’s Off Road Vehicle war, repeated the ASA’s interesting and alarming contention that it’s OK to keep killing wildlife with lead because habitat destruction and alien species are killing it faster.

“I don’t understand why we have this opposition from the sportfishing community,” says Tufts’ Pokras. “Nontoxic tackle is a no-brainer.”

And the Loon Preservation Committee’s Vogel left me with this: “It’s unfortunate that people see this as a plot to end fishing. I don’t know where they get that. What we’re asking for is a substitution of materials. Lead is killing lots of non-target wildlife; and anyone who’s a conservationist ought to have a problem with that. Lead is nasty stuff.”

Finally, anglers need to consider what lead tackle is doing to them and their families. The EPA has estimated that between 800,000 and 1.6 million anglers make their own sinkers, and it issues this warning: “Lead, when melted, can produce airborne particles that can move around your house . . . . They can cover everything—soil, dust, walls, floors, furniture, clothing, toys, stuffed animals, etc. . . . Never put a lead sinker in your mouth or bite down on split shot—use a pair of pliers instead! Always wash your hands thoroughly after handling lead sinkers or cleaning out your tackle box.”

There is no such thing as a “safe” or “normal” blood-lead level. The Contra Costa County (California) Lead Poisoning Prevention Project has tested tackle boxes and found potentially dangerous lead dust. And they’ve documented lead poisoning in children of anglers who make their own sinkers.

“No one is likely to get classic, acute lead poisoning from this kind of exposure,” says Pokras. “But it can lead to high blood pressure, reproductive problems in both genders, heart disease and kidney damage. Lead exposure is cumulative. So if you have a little from hobbies, a little from the water you drink, a little from old paint in your house, a little from tackle, it adds up in your body to produce chronic effects that can be subtle but very damaging.”

Even before I finished researching this article I threw away my sinker mold. When I am towed to my death by a 100-pound striper I don’t want my kids or grandkids getting their hands on it and frying up lead in sauce pans like I did 30 years ago. And now I’m trying not to think of how many thousands of lead split-shot I’ve bitten shut in my life—especially when I was a kid and my growing body was sucking up beneficial metals and mistaking lead for one of them.

Ted Williams has written about conservation issues for this magazine for almost three decades.