Oil spill penalties will help protect Minnesota loons by promoting lead-free fishing tackle

A common loon in northern Minnesota. (Photo by Lorie Shaull via Flickr)

The common loon is an icon of Minnesota’s clear and undeveloped northern lakes. Now it is the focus of a three-year effort to encourage more people to stop using lead fishing sinkers and jigs — which are estimated to cause 10-15 percent of all loon deaths in Minnesota each year.

Fines paid by oil company BP after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will provide about $400,000 per year for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s expanded “Get the Lead Out” program.

Many of the loons that spend the summer breeding and raising young in Minnesota each summer fly south to the Gulf each winter. The species was hard hit by the devastating spill, and oil toxins were found in Minnesota loons in the years following the disaster. The spill dumped more than 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

More than $6 million was awarded to Minnesota for loon protection by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, from fines paid by BP as part of a legal settlement.

Loons and lead

Loons are particularly susceptible to lead poisoning because the birds pick up pebbles and gravel off lake bottoms to aid their digestion. It’s easy to accidentally grab lost fishing tackle, and one lead sinker can kill a healthy bird.

Retired DNR bird specialist Carroll Henderson, who helped restore the trumpeter swan population in the state, as well as working to protect other bird species, including loons, says at least 100 to 200 loons die each year from eating lead fishing tackle.

“A bird with lead poisoning will have physical and behavioral changes, including loss of balance, gasping, tremors, and impaired ability to fly,” the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says. “The weakened bird is more vulnerable to predators, or it may have trouble feeding, mating, nesting, and caring for its young. It becomes emaciated and often dies within two to three weeks after eating the lead.”

Bald eagles and trumpeter swans are two other well-known bird species often poisoned by consuming lead ammunition or fishing gear.

Scientists say the smaller pieces of lead are the most dangerous, as they are most easily eaten by loons. Replacing those pieces with non-toxic tackle could have a big impact.

Promoting alternatives

Safe materials for tackle have been rising in popularity and availability, but authorities say there needs to be more consumer demand to make it viable. Safer alternatives include tin, bismuth, steel, and tungsten-nickel alloy.

The “Get the Lead Out” funding was briefly held up by a powerful legislator last month. Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chair of the Minnesota Senate’s Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, said he wanted to hold a hearing before the MPCA started spending the funds.

Once the hearing was held, the spending was approved. MPCA officials said they were “disappointed” by the delay, but would still get the program going by fishing opener in mid-May.

The DNR considered a citizen request to ban lead tackle and ammunition last fall, but said it was up to the legislature to make the decision. “A decision of this magnitude must involve engagement with the full range of stakeholders that could be affected by the decision,’’ the agency said.

Two bills have been introduced this year concerning the issue.

H.F. 3220 would provide funding for a lead tackle trade-in program, and is supported by multiple co-sponsors, but has no Senate companion bill. Anglers could trade in lead tackle for replacement gear, or a coupon or voucher to be used for the purchase of non-toxic alternatives.

H.F. 3825 would ban the production, sale, and use of any lead fishing tackle smaller than one ounce or two-and-a-half inches in length in the state. It has a Senate companion bill with multiple authors, but so far only one House sponsor.

Neither piece of legislation has advanced to a committee hearing yet.

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