April 15, 2013

Maine Voices: Lead sinker ban will help keep loon calls ringing out over our lakes

The proposal will protect the birds from poisoning so that we all can continue to enjoy them.

By TED KOFFMAN

FALMOUTH - The call of the common loon is one of Maine's unique and iconic sounds. It conjures up images of lakeside camps, leisurely swims and quiet fishing time with family.

However, the long-term sustainability of our loon population is at stake. Hundreds of adult loons have died in the past 25 years from lead poisoning. These unfortunate deaths are preventable.

The Maine Legislature's Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee is currently considering L.D. 730, An Act to Protect Maine's Loons by Banning Lead Sinkers and Jigs.

Sponsored by state Sen. Anne Haskell, D-Cumberland, this bill would ban the use and sale of lead sinkers 1 ounce or less, as well as lead-headed jigs up to 2.5 inches long.

Adult loons catch fish with lead sinkers and jigs attached or they pick up legacy lead tackle while eating gravel from lake bottoms, which they need to help grind up food.

Since 1987, Maine Audubon has helped coordinate the collection of dead loons from lakes and ponds. Dozens of volunteers, as well as wardens and biologists from the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, field staff from the Biodiversity Research Institute and Acadia National Park, and many others, have collected 450 loon carcasses in that time.

Every dead loon was necropsied by Dr. Mark Pokras and his team at the Wildlife Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.

Examining the cause of death of each and every bird, Pokras found that about one-third of the collected loons died from lead poisoning due to the ingestion of lead-based jigs and sinkers.

This is consistent with data across other Northern states, such as New York, Vermont, Washington, Michigan and Minnesota. Analysis of loon mortality in New Hampshire found that close to 50 percent of collected dead loons died from lead poisoning. It is an alarming trend.

Those who have been watching this issue know that the Legislature passed a bill in 2000 that banned the sale of lead sinkers weighing a half-ounce or less.

While this policy encouraged retailers to make available nontoxic alternatives to lead sinkers, more common loons died from lead poisoning in the 11 years after the ban went into effect, compared to the 11 years before the ban, according to Susan Gallo, Maine Audubon wildlife biologist and director of the Maine Loon Project.

Both lead sinkers and jigs are responsible for these deaths. We all know that loons are large birds -- a quarter-century of data collection and analysis makes it clear they are swallowing the larger sinkers and longer jigheads. The current law is not doing enough to protect our loons.

At the State of Maine Sportsman's Show in Augusta a couple of weeks ago, hundreds of anglers stopped by Maine Audubon's table to learn more about the issue. Many shared their passion for loons and their concern over how few loon pairs in Maine are able to produce chicks.

It was heartening to see how many anglers had already made the switch to lead-free jigs and sinkers. For many, it was just common sense -- why use gear that endangers one of Maine's most iconic wildlife resources? Lead-free alternatives are readily available online and at local retailers.

While some higher-end lead-free jigs and sinkers are more expensive than lead-based gear, many of the options available cost as little as $1 more. And the more we buy lead-free jigs and sinkers, the greater the incentive for the market to bring down the costs.

We all know that we are lucky to live in a state with abundant wildlife for everyone to enjoy. Some of us hunt or trap, others fish and others experience connection to wildlife through binoculars and cameras. No matter how we enjoy our wildlife resources, we do so in support of the rules that ensure that the populations will be healthy and sustainable long into the future.

As citizens of the state, we have a responsibility to do no harm to our wildlife populations to ensure their long-term health and sustainability. Loons are a valuable resource for us all to enjoy.

Passage of L.D. 730 will eliminate this needless, human-caused harm. We all know what lead does to our loons -- there are alternatives. Please join Maine Audubon and our numerous partners in supporting the passage of this bill.

Ted Koffman is executive director of Maine Audubon, which is based in Falmouth.

 

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