Getting the lead out...of the birds

Chuck Miller rellim at
Wed Apr 17 14:02:49 EST 2002

April 1, 2002 NY Times Science Section

Anglers Asked to Cast Not Their Lead Before Loons


About 20 years ago, New York State scientists were surprised to learn that a
leading cause of death among loons and other waterfowl was, unlike many
other environmental problems, easy and cheap to fix. The problem was with
the small lead sinkers commonly used to weight fishing lines. Switching to
sinkers made from nontoxic material like steel, glass or tungsten could
easily prevent many deaths.

Loons, great blue herons, mergansers, trumpet swans, mallards and other
birds go after fish bait and swallow it ‹ literally ‹ hook, line and sinker.
The split-shot sinkers they ingest ‹ balls usually less than a quarter-inch
in diameter ‹ are then ground up in the birds' gullets and cause lead
poisoning, accounting for about 20 percent of loon deaths each year, said
the state's wildlife pathologist, Ward B. Stone.

The scientists realized that switching from lead would protect people, too,
since anglers, children included, often use their teeth to clamp the sinkers
onto the line, risking lead exposure.

But despite the simple solution, it has taken at least a decade for the
State Legislature to come to the brink of passing a bill that would ban the
sale of lead sinkers. The reason, said one of the bill's sponsors,
Assemblyman Steven C. Englebright, a Democrat from East Setauket, is that
New York's hunters, fishermen and trappers have only recently come to see
that they share a common interest with environmentalists.

"This is a bill we should have passed immediately, because it made so much
sense," Mr. Englebright said. "We had so much evidence that it was killing
waterfowl. Yet apparently it was a bill that some members of the public and
some members of the conservation community who are resistant to change
wanted to take the time to think it through.

"And they have taken the time to think it through," he added drily.

Mr. Englebright first introduced the bill a decade ago, with support from
State Senator Carl L. Marcellino, a Republican from Syosset, the sponsor of
an identical bill in the upper house. But it was not until this year that
the New York State Conservation Council, which represents hunters and
anglers, agreed to support the bill. Without the council's blessing, Mr.
Englebright said, many upstate lawmakers would not vote for the bill.

Maine and New Hampshire have already outlawed lead sinkers.

As originally written, the bill would have banned the sale or possession of
lead sinkers. But a lobbyist for the Conservation Council conjured up images
of police officers rifling through tackle boxes and youngsters being
arrested. The council agreed to support the bill when it was changed to ban

As a further compromise, the bill will permit the sale of other fishing
tackle, like jig-head lures, that may contain lead. The thinking behind
that, Mr. Englebright said, is that birds are not likely to mistake jig
heads, which have hooks and are brightly painted, for the pebbles they eat
to grind their food.

Birds ingest the sinkers not because they mistake them for pebbles, but
because when a line breaks, the sinkers are often still attached to bait or
lures that the birds go after.

In the Adirondacks, the large loon's haunting laugh is practically a park
motto. About 400 loons nest there.

"The only reason people aren't making the switch is that they don't know,"
said William Cooke, the director of government relations for Audubon New
York. "If you look at all the things that are going on environmentally that
you can't do anything about ‹ this is one of those rare occasions where you
can personally impact the viability of a species."

Supporters of the bill from Audubon New York, Audubon International and the
Adirondack Council said the switch would cost the average fisherman about 25
cents a year. Many large sporting goods stores already stock alternatives to
lead, said a spokesman for the Adirondack Council, John F. Sheehan, and the
law would not take effect for two years, to provide time to sell their

But anglers need not wait to make the switch. Trout season opens today, and
while the bill is awaiting a vote, environmental groups have enlisted about
30 outdoor stores in a swap program, offering free steel sinkers to people
who trade in lead ones.


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