Chapter 2: What "Lead" Us Here

Missed our last post? Check out Chapter 1: For the Love of Loons

Howell Conservation Fund’s (HCF) Founder, Brett Howell, has always had a soft spot for loons. Having spent summers at Squam Lake, NH, he spent ample time surrounded by the migratory bird species. So, when it came time to start his own conservation project, it was a natural progression that he should look first at the area that he held so dear to his heart.

Lead is highly toxic, and ingesting it can cause painful and fatal failure of internal organs. For decades, the U.S. government has been taking measures to prevent humans from suffering from lead poisoning. However, we have a ways to go for protecting our wildlife. Photo provided by the Loon Preservation Committee.

In 2018, Brett reached out to the Loon Preservation Committee (LPC), an organization that he had only just become familiar with. Much to Brett’s surprise, he learned that his treasured bird species was being killed off by a very preventable affliction: the use of lead fishing tackle.

For most of modern time, lead has been a predominant material used in fishing tackle and in lead shot for hunting. In the 1970s, it was discovered how harmful these sporting goods can be to wildlife. When this tackle is ingested by birds and fish, it can cause their internal organs to fail and cause death within 2-4 weeks. Although there is limited data on early mortality rates from lead tackle, lead shot in hunting was estimated to cause 1.6 million to 3.9 million deaths every year amongst North American waterfowl. “The reason lead became the standard is because lead is cheap and has a low melting temperature,” explained LPC Executive Director Harry Vogel. “You don’t have to do too much to mold it; for all of those reasons, lead became the standard for fishing tackle, which is really unfortunate because at that time we didn’t know how toxic it was.”

While loons are the focal point of the LPC, they serve as a symbol for all of the wildlife that is affected by issues such as lead poisoning from tackle. “Loons are a charismatic, iconic species,” explained Harry. Sadly, these memorable waterfowl with the blood red eyes had been dying off for years due to the ever present threat of lead fishing tackle. According to Harry, one in every two documented adult loon deaths were a result of ingesting lead sinkers and jigs, and that’s not even accounting for other wildlife that otherwise would thrive in this environment. “People care deeply about loons, but with this program we’re also saving other species that rely on the same ecosystem.”

Indeed, loons are in some ways representative of relatable, traditional family values. Unlike some other bird species, loons partner up, and both partners share the responsibilities of caring for the eggs and, subsequently, the chicks. While other species such as merganser ducks may lay up to 13 eggs in a clutch - many being picked off by predators before or after they hatch - loons lay only 1-2 eggs at a time. Because of this, it is a tragedy when even one egg does not make it, and even more so when an adult loon is lost to preventable fatalities such as lead ingestion.

The U.S. banned lead in paint in 1978 and in gasoline in 1980s, yet restrictions on lead usage in hunting and fishing have been piecemeal and largely driven by state and regional efforts. In 2013, New Hampshire became the first state to ban lead fishing sinkers and jigs smaller than 1oz, which were the largest known cause of adult loon mortality in the state. Getting to this point was no small feat. “We had been trying to get people to voluntarily stop using lead tackle for 20 years,” Harry said, “We saw no decline. We decided we had to educate our decision makers, and legislation would be the first step.”

Harry, who realized he needed some help, enlisted the help of New Hampshire Attorney Sheridan Brown as LPC’s Legislative Director. Sheridan got to work garnering buy-in from legislators on both sides of the aisle. “Opponents of the legislation asked why LPC couldn’t just buy up all the lead,” Sheridan recalled of his early conversations with lawmakers. “The answer was that it would be ineffective unless there was a ban in place. People would still be able to buy new lead and might also make and use their own lead tackle. Without an effective law protecting loons from lead, buying tackle would be bailing water out of the boat without plugging the leak.”

After countless hearings and a heated legislative battle, the LPC was successful in making its case. With the hard work of not only the LPC, but numerous state Senators and volunteers, SB 89 was signed into law in 2013 by Governor Maggie Hassan, with an effective date of June 1, 2016. “We weren’t thrilled about the three-year phase-in period,” said Harry, “but we wanted to be helpful and educational. We’re here for the long haul and the long term benefits of the legislation outweighed the short term harm to loons that we needed to accept to get the legislation passed.”

Even with the legislation in place, however, the LPC’s work was far from over. Now the challenge was to remove existing lead tackle from circulation before it could kill more wildlife.

Continue reading with Chapter 3: Tackling the Problem

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