Bill would ban more lead fishing tackle to help save loons

By Pete Warner, Bangor Daily News Staff

A bill designed to ban more types of lead fishing equipment to reduce further health threats to Maine loons got key approval from the Committee on Inland Fisheries and Wildlife on May 17.

The committee voted 8-2 in favor of LD 958. If approved by the Legislature, the bill will make it illegal to sell or offer for sale painted lead jigs weighing one ounce or less or measuring 2 1/2 inches or less in length. 

The ban would go into effect on Sept. 1, 2024, for sellers and would be expanded to ban the use of the lures beginning on Sept. 1, 2026.

The new stipulation would follow the lead of the 2013 law that banned the use of similarly sized lead sinkers or unpainted lead jigs while fishing. The lead sinker prohibition took effect that same year, while the bare lead jig ban took effect in 2017. Lead sinkers weighing one-half ounce or less were banned more than a decade earlier in Maine for both sale and use.

The new bill is sponsored by Rep. Alison Hepler, D-Woolwich, who also is a member of the IFW Committee.

According to Maine Audubon, lead poisoning has for many years been among the leading causes of death for adult loons. Over a 25 year span, lead poisoning was found to be responsible for close to one-third of adult loon deaths.

The birds are poisoned by the lead when they eat lost or discarded fishing tackle found in the gravel in lakes and ponds, or swallow fish that have consumed lead sinkers or lures.

Speaking at Wednesday’s committee meeting, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife loon specialist Danielle D’Auria said that during the last four years, 20 of 150 dead adult loons studied by biologists — 13 percent — died of lead poisoning.

Of those, 15 birds had ingested jigs, two were found to contain sinkers and three others had other pieces of lead in their systems. D’Auria said lead poisoning was the third leading cause of death for adult loons in that sample.

DIF&W Fisheries and Hatcheries Division Director Francis Brautigam said the 2013 Maine law banning bare lead sinkers and jigs has already reduced loon mortalities from lead poisoning by more than 57 percent. 

The primary cause of death for adult loons was boat strikes, predator attacks or fights with other loons. The number two cause was a fungal respiratory disease.

There are an estimated 4,300 adult loons in the state, D’Auria said. 

“We are definitely kind of a stronghold for the Northeast,” D’Auria said. “We see our adult population gradually rising from the 1980s.”

The suggested prohibition on painted lead jigs is also targeting lures that are less than an ounce and less than 1 1/2 inches in length because loons usually don’t consume items larger than that.

Rep. Steven Wood, R-Greene, voted in opposition to the bill. His concern was based on discussions with anglers who said switching from lead jigs to tungsten steel is going to cost a lot of money.

Brautigam estimated that replacing a single $1 lead jig may run upwards of $3.50 for a similar tungsten lure.

However, Maine Audubon policy advocate Ches Gundrum said the organization’s “Fish Lead Free” program, a partnership with DIF&W and other nonprofits, aims to educate anglers about lead fishing tackle while also reducing the cost of change. Anglers who turn in at least one ounce of lead tackle are provided with a $10 voucher that can be used to buy nontoxic alternatives at select tackle shops. Maine Audubon then reimburses the merchants.

Brautigam said he hopes that passage of the bill will maximize the state’s efforts to get the lead out.

“This piece of legislation pretty much removes the last piece of terminal fishing gear that we’re finding in loons,” Brautigam said. “There’s still legacy lead that’s in our waters, right, but over time it should eliminate that as a source of loon mortality.”

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