Washington considers lead ban

Recreational angling community questions need for restrictions that would curtail use of lead in sinkers and lures

Washington could become the latest state to restrict the use of lead by recreational anglers. A proposal to limit lead in fishing weights and lures in order to save loons from lead poisoning was suggested in a meeting of the Washington Fish & Wildlife Commission in early November. Sportsfishermen will have their chance to speak on the issue Friday (Dec. 4) afternoon when the commission holds its December meeting in Olympia.

At the November meeting, representatives of the Loon Lake Loon Association, Daniel Poleschook, Jr., and Virginia Gumm, presented the commission with findings that purported to make a correlation between loon mortality and the use of lead fishing weights and lures that are composed at least partially of the metal. Of the 27 loon carcasses that were collected and examined by the group during the study period that extended from 1996 to 2009, nine of the birds were found to have died of lead toxicosis, according to the report. The Loon Lake Loon Association wants the commission to implement rule changes that forbid saltwater and freshwater anglers in the state to use lead weights lighter than 1 ounce or lead-based lures less than 2 inches in length.

Common loons, the sharp-billed, black-and-white waterfowl whose haunting calls have become synonymous with wilderness in the northern tier of states, swallow small pieces of gravel to help them grind up and digest the fish they feed on. Inadvertently, the birds sometimes ingest small lead weights that have broken away from fishing lines. Though lead essentially is an inert element in water, it is toxic and can be lethal depending on how much is consumed. There are a number of nontoxic weights available to anglers, but other metals are expensive when compared to the cost of lead, and spokespersons for recreational anglers consider any such restriction as an undue burden on fishermen and fishing tackle suppliers.

"Essentially, this move to restrict lead in Washington is an effort by special-interest groups to reach a management goal that's not based on data or trends that the state has been able to verify," said Chris Horton, BASS Conservation director. "The science is lacking. Nobody wants to see loons wiped out, but when all is said and done, what they're talking about are their findings that show that an average of less than one loon a year was found to have died from ingesting lead sinkers.

"The state's professionals don't think that there's a big problem in need of a solution. This is an effort that, if successful, will have a much more negative impact on fishermen than a positive impact on loons," added Horton.

In 2000, the Washington Fish & Wildlife Department summarized a study of its own that found that common loons were not endangered or even threatened, though it recommended that the birds be placed on the state's "sensitive species" list. That proposal was adopted, and no subsequent statewide studies have been conducted by the agency since the turn of the century.

Fishing groups are rallying to defeat the proposed lead restriction. Washington BASS Federation Nation President Mark Byrne and Gordon Robertson, the American Sportfishing Association's vice president of policy and governmental affairs, will be among the spokespersons for recreational angler groups at the upcoming meeting. The commission's decision on the proposed lead restriction is expected to be announced at a public meeting in February.

New York, as well as three New England states — Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire — have restrictions in place already that limit lead usage in fishing tackle.

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