A Call To Anglers: Trade In Lead Tackle, Save A Loon

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A loon swims on Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, N.H. (Jim Cole/AP/File)
A loon swims on Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro, N.H. (Jim Cole/AP/File)

Several loons in New Hampshire have died from lead poisoning this summer.

The Loon Preservation Committee in New Hampshire reports that two loon deaths occurred after the birds ingested weighted lead hooks left behind by fishermen. Over the last three decades, the committee says, lead poisoning from ingested fish tackle has accounted for 44% of all documented adult loon deaths in the state.

The alarming trend of loon deaths prompted the state to offer a buy-back program in 2018, encouraging anglers to trade in illegal lead tackle. Banned products include all lead sinkers and jigs that weigh less than an ounce.

Even the smallest lead sinker can kill the red-eyed loon within two to four weeks of eating it, says Harry Vogel, senior biologist and executive director at the Loon Preservation Committee in New Hampshire.

“We're not asking people to stop fishing,” Vogel says. “We're just asking them to get rid of their old lead tackle and replace it with new, non-toxic, wildlife safe tackle. And we want to help them do that.”

Working with New Hampshire Fish and Game and local tackle shops, the buy-back program offers $10 vouchers for anyone handing in an ounce or more of lead tackle. They can then use their voucher to invest in up-to-date gear.

“There are a bunch of things that you can make tackle out of and that includes tin and bismuth and tungsten and steel and stone [and] these new composite materials, and loons can swallow any of those and it will likely be just fine,” he says.

So far, New Hampshire’s buy-back initiative has been successful. In 2018, the program collected roughly 4,500 pieces of lead tackle.

Interview Highlights

On their appearance

“Loons are these amazing birds. They range up to 15 or 16 pounds in size for a big male here in New England. Towards the center in Minnesota and Michigan, they run a little bit smaller than that. But they have these distinctive black and white plumage. They have this blood red eye and they have these amazing and far reaching calls. And in fact, one of my very favorite quotes about loons comes from a British researcher who way back in the 1950s described the nighttime calling of loons as ‘a chorus from all of the devils in hell.’ So if you love these birds [and] if you've heard those calls, you either love them or they send chills up and down your spine, but you're not likely to forget them once you've heard them or [forget] the bird that made them.”

On how loons are ingesting the lead gear

“We think that they're actually three different ways that loons can ingest lead tackle. Going back to a little bit of basic loon biology, loons have no teeth. The consequence of that is that loons — having no teeth — can't chew their food. So they swallow their fish whole and then they follow that up by swallowing small pebbles from the lake bottom. And they use those pebbles as surrogate teeth to grind up the fish that they've just eaten. So they hold those in the gizzard — the muscular portion of their stomach — and that has served loons well for millions of years.

“But in the past 200 or so years, it's resulted in a big challenge for loons. And that challenge is these little split shot lead fishing sinkers. They're about the same size as the pebbles they're looking for. But when they swallow those pebbles, the grinding action of the gizzard and the stomach acids, they end up taking that lead and dissolving it and it goes throughout their body and it poisons those birds. But we now think that there are two other ways that loons ingest fishing tackle that's actually more common. And so the most common prey item for a loon is probably a small yellow perch, maybe six or eight inches long.

“But loons will on occasion catch and eat a larger fish. And when you're talking about a fish that’s larger than an eight inch yellow perch, you're beginning to get to a size range that could conceivably break an angler’s line. And that fish is still going to be trailing that line and the hook and sinker or the lead headed jig that's attached to it and that fish is going to be a little bit slower than the fish next to it. It's going to be swimming a little bit erratically. And that's the fish a loon is going to zero in on as an easy meal. It gets a sinker or the lead headed jig as well. And then finally, if you're fishing, you're trying to catch a fish but you could catch a loon instead because the loons instinct is to strike at something if it flashes by it in the water.”

On whether other states are concerned about lead

“Absolutely. And you know, this is not just a loon issue. So loons are kind of the tip of the iceberg and in as so many things, loons are an indicator of environmental problems that are affecting a lot more than just loons. We know of at least 28 different species that will ingest lead sinkers or lead headed jigs and subsequently die of lead poisoning. And the EPA, in a report done several years now, identified 75 species that they thought were at risk from the same thing. If you expand that to let ammunition, you get up into the hundreds of species. But this is only lead fishing tackle that we're talking about here.

On the yodel, a male-only loon call

“If there's a male loon yodelling on the water, it means that male is claiming that territory and he's saying, ‘If you're another male hearing me, give this call then stay away,’ and if you're female, ‘Then come on over.’ ”

On the loon’s wail call

“Typically, loons will sleep on the water unless they're sitting on an egg and incubating eggs. At nighttime, both of those adults will be out in the water in their territory. They'll fall asleep and over the course of the evening, they will begin to drift away from each other. And then one to the other will wake up, they'll give that wail call that wakes up its mate, who gives that call back and then they move toward each other. And so from those activities we infer the meaning of that call to be, ‘Here I am. Where are you? Come closer.’ ”

On the loon’s tremolo call

“It can be an alarm call, but sometimes also I'll be in a lake in the morning and people will say, ‘Oh something terrible must have happened on the lake because the loons were tremoloing all night.’ And so the tremolo, it's contextual and so sometimes a male and a female on the lake will tremolo back and forth to each other. And again, it's advertising territory. It's pair bonding and doing those sorts of things. It has a variety of different uses depending on the context.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced this story and edited it for broadcast with Kathleen McKenna.  Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on July 30, 2019.

Robin Young Co-Host, Here & Now
Robin Young brings more than 25 years of broadcast experience to her role as host of Here & Now.



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