Frequently Asked Questions About Loons, Lead (Pb), and SB 89

Loon Mortality from Ingestion of Lead Fishing Tackle

How many loons die from lead tackle in New Hampshire?
Forty-eight percent of the adult loons collected by LPC have died as a result of lead poisoning caused by ingesting lead fishing tackle.  Ingestion of lead fishing jigs (hooks with a lead weight molded around them) is the leading known cause of death for adult loons, with ingestion of lead sinkers the second leading known cause of death.  Juvenile and immature loons ingest lead tackle much more infrequently than adults.

Opponents of loon protection legislation portray the number of loons killed by lead fishing tackle as minimal—this ignores the significance of adult loon mortality.  Loons do not breed until their sixth or seventh year of life on average, and then only produce an average of one chick per pair every two years.  Given these life history characteristics, survival of adult loons is the most important factor in ensuring the viability of New Hampshire’s small loon population.
The loss of at least 124 NH adult loons to lead tackle ingestion between 1989 and 2011 has had a significant negative impact upon our state's loons.

How does lead tackle kill loons?
Once ingested, the lead tackle goes into the loon’s gizzard.  The acid and grinding action of the gizzard erodes the lead, which then passes into the bloodstream and organs and poisons the loon. Even a single small lead split shot sinker is fatal to loons, which will die within 2-4 weeks of ingesting a piece of lead fishing tackle.

It is well-established that loons are killed by lead poisoning when they ingest lead tackle.  They are not killed by the mere ingestion of tackle. In the more than 2000 dead loons that Dr. Mark Pokras and Tufts University Veterinary School have examined, they have only ever found 1 bird that had ingested lead but did NOT have a toxic level of lead in its tissues. Conversely, they have looked at hundreds of birds that have ingested non-lead objects and almost never found a toxic level of lead.  A small number of loons die from swallowing fish-hooks and having those hooks damage important organs, but this is not common.  In the vast majority of loons, the hooks (either hooks on jigs or separate hooks) are very rapidly broken down in the gizzard.

Once a loon has ingested lead tackle, can it be saved
Only a few loons have been treated for lead poisoning and released.  Usually, loons do not display symptoms until lead is already at toxic levels in their bloodstream.  At that point, the only option is to euthanize the loon.

How do loons ingest lead fishing tackle?
At least 2/3 of loons that die from ingested lead tackle acquire it as a result of current fishing activity.  They may 1) strike at bait as it is being retrieved through the water; 2) strike at a fish that is being reeled in by an angler; or 3) ingest a fish that has broken a line and is trailing tackle. 

In some cases, loons may also pick up lead tackle from the lake bottom.  Loons normally ingest small pebbles as grit, and they may mistake a piece of tackle for a small pebble.

What types and sizes of lead tackle do loons ingest?  Do weedguards, etc. make a difference?
Loons ingest both lead fishing sinkers and jigs.  A sinker is attached to a fishing line to sink it, while a jig is a hook with a lead weight molded around it.  Loons in New Hampshire have ingested jigs weighing at least ¾ oz and sinkers weighing over 1 oz.  Although loons may ingest tackle much larger than 1 oz, they more regularly ingest lead tackle weighing 1 oz or less. 

It is appropriate to ban all lead sinkers and jigs weighing one ounce or less as proposed by SB 89, regardless of paint, coatings, skirts, weedguards, etc.  First, The goal of SB 89 is to close a significant gap in existing protections for loons.  Exemptions for certain jigs would undermine the new law’s effectiveness by encouraging anglers to shift to different types of toxic lead (Pb) jigs that are exempted—but no less of a threat to our loons—instead of moving to non-lead tackle. 

Whereas the acid and grinding action of a loon’s gizzard erodes lead sinkers and jigs, the hooks, weed guards and other components of this tackle may no longer be present when it is removed from dead loons.  Still, loons' ingestion of lead jigs with and without coverings like weedguards has been documented.   

SB 89's ban on the sale and freshwater use of all lead sinkers and jigs weighing one ounce will make our restrictions on lead tackle adequte to protect New Hampshire's loons.

How do loons ingest large jigs if their normal food is small fish?
Although loons often eat 4-8” fish, they regularly eat fish larger than 12” as well. They have even been documented eating fish as large as 16-17”.  If these large fish are trailing tackle from a broken line, they are not able to swim as well as unimpaired fish and are easy prey for loons.  The loons then ingest the tackle—which may be a large jig—as well as the fish.  Loons may also strike at large fish or tackle as they are being reeled in.

How well has the negative impact of lead fishing tackle on loons been studied?
The significant negative impact of lead fishing tackle on loons has been documented by more than a dozen scientific publications.  Click here to view the list.  Meanwhile, decades of data compiled by LPC (including actual tackle removed from dead NH loons) and a recent peer-reviewed thesis show that the lead sinkers and jigs that would be banned by SB 89 cause nearly half of all NH adult loon mortality.  No other single hazard causes anywhere near the same amount of NH adult loon mortality or is more easily preventable.  Click here to learn about the impact of lead tackle on NH's loons.

Isn't New Hampshire’s loon population doing fine?
Loons are a state-listed threatened species.  Although the loon population has tripled in New Hampshire since 1975, the painfully slow growth of this small population has only been possible due to intensive management by LPC and the efforts of our volunteers throughout the state to recover the population.  Absent these continuing efforts, these hard-won gains would be quickly reversed by continued loon deaths from lead fishing tackle.  Meanwhile, LPC’s research indicates that the population is still only half of what the state could support.

For a species like loons, it is critical to keep the adults alive to maintain a viable population.  Loons are a long-lived species (between 20-30 years) with a low rate of adult mortality from natural causes, a low reproductive rate (on average a half a chick per pair, per year), and loons generally do not reproduce successfully until they are 6-7 years old.  With these life history characteristics, the survival of each adult loon is crucial.  The loss of so many adult loons to lead fishing tackle jeopardizes the future viability of the population in the face of increasing threats and has slowed the recovery of the species in New Hampshire.

Furthermore, declines occurring in the population may not be immediately detectable.  Young loons spend their first three years of life on the ocean before returning to the freshwater lakes.  For the next several years, they are part of a transient population of unpaired loons before they become a settled, territorial pair member.  These transient loons form the buffer population to replace losses of territorial loons.  However, because of their transient nature, it is difficult to establish how many of these unpaired loons there are in the population.  Declines in this segment of the population would not become apparent for several years when we would begin to see declines in the number of territorial pairs.

Isn't shoreline development the biggest threat to loons?  Or eagles?
Loons in New Hampshire face multiple threats, all of which impact the growth rate of the population.  However, given the life history characteristics of loons, threats to adult survival have by far the greatest impact on population viability.  Of these, ingestion of lead fishing jigs is the leading cause of adult loon mortality.

LPC works to mitigate threats to reproduction, such as shoreline development, through the use of artificial nesting rafts and protecting loon nests with signs and ropelines. Although maintenance of undisturbed nesting habitat is the preferred option, loons have adapted well to these rafts and they form an important part of LPC’s management efforts.

Bald eagles may predate a few loon chicks or eggs each year, but their impact on the overall population is minimal.  The loss of an egg or chick has much less of an impact on the population than the loss of an adult.  Loons and eagles co-evolved and are able to co-exist together, whereas loons have no defenses against the ingestion of lead tackle.

SB 89 Opponents' Misinterpretation of Loon Mortality Data
Why they have their facts wrong

Differences between rates of lead tackle mortality of Common Loons exist on a regional and state level.  These result from varying degrees of fishing pressure among states and physiological and behavioral differences between loons from different regions.

Breeding adult loons are the age/life stage class primarily impacted by mortality from lead fishing tackle.  Although immatures, wintering loons, and, rarely, juveniles will ingest lead tackle, these are infrequent occurrences.  Consequently, in reporting and interpreting mortality rates, it is important to isolate breeding adults from other classes of loons when focusing on lead fishing tackle. 

Due to varying purposes of researchers in presenting their data, mortality data is frequently presented without making this distinction, leading to misinterpretation and misrepresentation of the data by those attempting to use these papers to oppose regulation of lead tackle.   To learn more about the studies frequently cited by opponents and the ways in which the findings of these studies have been misrepresented by opponents, click here.

Inadequacy of Current Law and How SB 89 Remedies It

Isn't lead tackle already illegal to use?  Why does the law need to be stronger?
Current law only bans the sale and freshwater use of lead sinkers weighing one ounce or less and lead jigs measuring one inch or less.  This falls far short of protecting our loons.  The current sinker restriction sets a protective standard, as loons rarely ingest tackle larger than 1 oz.  The jig standard, however, is completely inadequate, as jigheads removed from New Hampshire loons have all come from currently legal jigs measuring greater than 1 inch in total length.  These currently legal jigs are responsible for  more than half (52%) of all NH adult loon deaths caused by lead.

SB 89 would amend existing law to ban the sale and freshwater use of lead sinkers and jigs weighing one ounce or less—the largest known cause of NH adult loon mortality.  Implementing the same weight standard to lead sinkers and jigs will make the law clear, consistent, and adequate to protect our loons.

SB 89 would also maintain New Hampshire’s position as a leader in protecting our wildlife from toxic lead fishing tackle.  New Hampshire was the first state in the nation to pass legislation to protect loons and other wildlife in 1998 (enacted in 2000).  Shortly thereafter, neighboring states followed our lead.  This resulted in a dramatic increase in the use and availability of non-lead tackle, with corresponding benefits for wildlife on a regional level.  In 2012, Massachusetts enacted restrictions on lead tackle similar to those of SB 89.

Does Senate Bill 89 ban a wide range of fishing tackle?
No.  Unfortunately, one national organization representing fishing tackle manufacturers and retailers is misleading anglers by telling them that SB 89 could ban “virtually all small fishing lures.”  This is false.  SB 89 bans only lead fishing sinkers and lead jigs weighing one ounce or less—the largest known cause of NH adult loon mortality.  Everything else is specifically excluded from the ban in SB 89.  View the full text of the bill by clicking this link

Why does Senate Bill 89 exempt certain kinds of tackle, like flies?
LPC makes its policy recommendations based on data—not speculation.  Lead fishing sinkers and lead jigs weighing one ounce or less are by far the largest known cause of NH adult loon mortality.  Conversely, the tackle exempted by SB 89 is not causing significant loon mortality.  LPC has recovered only four (4) loons with a lethal lead level in which a lead object could not be found and was presumably passed.  These are in addition to the at least 124 NH adult loons killed by lead sinkers and jigs. 

Are neighboring states doing anything to protect loons?
Yes.  Massachusetts now bans the freshwater use of lead sinkers and lead-headed jigs weighing less than one ounce (click here to view the regulations) and the Maine legislature is considering a ban on the use and sale of similarly-sized lead tackle (click here to view the bill text).

Finding and Using Non-Lead Tackle

Where can I find non-lead fishing tackle? Is it more expensive than tackle made of lead?
Non-lead tackle is available in a wide variety of styles and sizes to meet the needs of anglers.  The most common alternative materials are tungsten, bismuth-tin, and steel, although other materials are also available.  Bismuth-tin and steel tackle are comparably priced to equivalent lead tackle items, while tungsten tackle costs $1-2 more than equivalent lead tackle.  Tungsten, however, performs better than other tackle and is favored by anglers on professional fishing circuits. 

The availability of non-lead tackle has grown dramatically as a result of New Hampshire’s ban on some lead sinkers and jigs enacted in 2000.  The law was the first of its kind, and led to the enactment of similar restrictions in neighboring states.   Click here for a list of non-lead fishing tackle suppliers.

Does non-lead fishing tackle perform as well as lead tackle?
Yes.  Non-lead fishing tackle protects loons from poisoning, and the harder metals used as non-toxic alternatives perform just as well and even better than lead.  Click here to read an article about the Non-lead Tackle Advantage from NH Wildlife Journal, published by the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department.

SB 89 and New Hampshire’s Economy

Will Senate Bill 89 hurt New Hampshire’s fishing license sales?
No.  In 2012, after Massachusetts enacted restrictions on lead fishing tackle similar to those in SB 89, the Commonwealth sold 10,000 more licenses than the prior year.  The Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has said, “the ban didn’t seem to have any negative effect [upon fishing license sales], perhaps because so many alternatives to lead are available.”  The Division, however, ascribes the increase in sales to an early spring start to the fishing season.  Nashua Telegraph, May 6, 2013.

How will Senate Bill 89 impact businesses?
SB 89 equitably and reasonably balances the need to protect New Hampshire’s population with the economic concerns of small businesses.  The proposed bill includes a three year phase-in period during which retailers can sell their inventory of prohibited lead tackle.  Even after the phase-in period, retailers and individual anglers may sell lead tackle to parties in other states.  SB 89 only prevents individuals and retailers from selling or using lead sinkers and lead jigs weighing one ounce or less in New Hampshire's freshwaters, where it this toxic tackle having a significant negative impact upon our state’s loons.

Currently, the environmental costs of lead tackle are placed unfairly upon parties other than those who make and use lead tackle for recreation.  It is only because of intensive management, supported by extensive contributions of volunteers who have invested substantial time and money that New Hampshire’s loon population has been restored and is being maintained.  Just 38 pieces of lead tackle entirely reversed six full seasons of intensive loon nesting raft management by LPC and its partners.

Does protecting loons help New Hampshire’s economy?
Yes.  In addition to being intrinsically valuable and an important part of our state’s natural heritage, our iconic loons and other wildlife species are economically valuable.  Wildlife watching has become an important part of New Hampshire’s tourism economy, supporting roughly 4,500 jobs.  Wildlife watchers spend $281 million annually in New Hampshire—35% more than anglers.  See U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation State Overview at p. 18-20 (Sept. 2012), available at http://digitalmedia.fws.gov/cdm/ref/collection/document/id/858

SB 89 not only protects our iconic loons—it benefits as many as 75 other species of wildlife that are also known to be at risk of lead poisoning due to ingestion of lead fishing tackle.

Does Senate Bill 89 create new burdens for state or local government?
No.  The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department has had responsibility for enforcement of the state’s law prohibiting the freshwater use of certain lead sinkers and lead jigs for more than a decade.  The original law passed in 2000 was amended in 2005 to also prohibit the sale of this tackle, and the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office has had the authority to enforce the sale ban since that time. 

The deterrent effect of the sale ban will make SB 89’s protections largely self-enforcing, just as current law has, by encouraging the removal of toxic lead fishing tackle from the marketplace.  In the event prosecutorial action to enforce the ban is necessary, the Attorney General’s may take such action itself or delegate prosecution to interested county attorneys.

SB 89 merely changes the definition of what tackle is prohibited.  Nothing about that action creates a new enforcement burden for state or local enforcement agencies.  As with all agencies charged with the enforcement of a statute, the Department of Fish and Game, the Attorney General’s Office, and local prosecutors retain discretion over how to best allocate their resources.

Why Both Education and Adequate Regulation Are Needed to Protect Loons

What is the status of current education initiatives to reduce loon mortality?
LPC has been educating the public about the dangers of lead tackle to loons since the 1980’s through exhibits, presentations, press releases, and other media. LPC’s lead tackle outreach program helps to remove hazardous lead sinkers from our environment, promote sound fishing practices, and engage lake users in loon conservation. LPC also posts educational signs at public access points to lakes and at lakeside businesses and publishes findings of its research in peer-reviewed journals, in the Loon Preservation Committee Newsletter, and in other popular forums.

Meanwhile, for nearly fifteen years, the New Hampshire Department of Fish and Game (NHF&G) has had an education program in place as mandated by NH RSA 207:60.  LPC is currently participating in a steering committee led by the NHF&G to reinvigorate this program via a collaborative education initiative.

While it is clearly important, education by itself is not a substitute for adequate restrictions on toxic lead fishing tackle.   An education-only approach has failed to limit loon mortality from ingested lead tackle anywhere it has been tried—even where significant resources were invested in it.  Even if the New Hampshire Fish and Game. Department had significant resources available for education—which it does not—additional regulation would still be needed.

Broad Public Support for SB89

Who supports Senate Bill 89?
SB 89 is supported by the Loon Preservation Committee (LPC), New Hampshire Lakes Association, New Hampshire Audubon, Trout Unlimited, their members, and numerous other individuals and partner organizations throughout New Hampshire.  These organizations have well-established conservation credentials. 

This bill is sponsored by Senator Jeannie Forrester (R-Meredith) and has 11 cosponsors from both parties in the House and Senate.  View the full list of sponsors by clicking this link .

SB 89 has also received the editorial endorsements of four major New Hampshire newspapers (view them by clicking the following links):  The Union Leader, the Concord Monitor, the Nashua Telegraph, and the Valley News.   

Finally, Wal-Mart’s Senior Manager of Government Relations and Public Affairs has informed LPC that Wal-Mart “will be more than happy to adjust its compliance standard to ensure jigs weighing one ounce or less are lead free.”