Editorial: Loons and Lead; N.H. Bill Offers Needed Protection

Saturday, April 13, 2013
If you sense that there are significantly more loons on the lakes, ponds and rivers of New Hampshire than just a few decades ago, you’re absolutely right. Thanks to the hard work of the Loon Preservation Committee and other conservation organizations, about three times as many loons now take up summer residence in New Hampshire as did in the mid-’70s. Anyone who has watched one of these spectacularly handsome birds or heard its signature call can only be grateful for how much has been achieved.

But it hasn’t been easy. Loons are not only finicky breeders, they’re slow ones. Loons don’t get around to the business of reproduction until they’re 6 or 7 years old, and even then they take their time. Loon mates will produce one chick every two years. For the Gavia immer species, it’s all about quality, not quantity.

But all that hard work — of both the volunteer conservationists who have gone to extraordinary lengths to protect and create loon breeding habitat and the loons who fastidiously practice family planning — can be quickly wiped out when loons encounter lead tackle introduced into their environment by sport fishing. Lead is commonly used for sinkers and jigs (weighted hooks), and loons ingest them when they feed on fish that have hooks left in them. For a loon that swallows a contaminated fish, death by lead poisoning is certain, imminent and painful.

To its credit, New Hampshire was the first state to take action: In 2000, it banned lead sinkers of less than 1 ounce and lead jigs less than 1 inch — limits that have since been adopted in some form in many other states. (Vermont bans lead sinkers weighing less than one-half ounce.) But the Loon Preservation Committee has discovered that it is not enough. Lethal jigs are still in widespread use, and almost half of all adult loon deaths investigated between 1989 and 2011 were attributed to lead ingestion — a total of 124. The committee predicts that New Hampshire’s loon population, now about 640 adults, will struggle to maintain current numbers and will even decline if the threat of lead is not further reduced.

It easily could be. A bill passed unanimously by the New Hampshire Senate would ban the sale of all lead jigs weighing 1 ounce or less (significantly different from the current prohibition of jigs that measure 1 inch or less). The new limit would be phased in to minimize its impact on retailers of fishing supplies.

Proponents of the bill are expecting a much more difficult time in the House, largely because of opposition from sport fishermen, mostly of the bass variety. Anglers argue that nonlead jigs are harder to find, more expensive and inferior. They also fear that national fishing tournaments will shun New Hampshire if the stricter limit is passed.

Tiffany Grade, a biologist for the Loon Preservation Committee, says that any number of alternatives — including steel, tin and tungsten — are available and, with the exception of tungsten, comparable in price. Massachusetts adopted a strict lead limit in 2012, and it has had minimal impact on recreational fishing, she said.

Because anglers are generally good conservationists themselves — maintaining the health of the natural world is vital to their pastime, after all — it’s a safe bet their objections are more than frivolous. On the other hand, the ability of manufacturers — in this case, those that serve recreational fishing — to respond to changed requirements and serve the needs of their customers has been demonstrated repeatedly.

Bass fishing and loons can flourish together. Get the lead out.

Valley News

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