In an effort to protect Maine loons, the state has recently adopted new regulations on fishing tackle, and even stricter regulations are scheduled to be enacted next year.
Specifically, these regulations were created to protect loons from lead poisoning, a deadly condition that has been documented as one of the main causes of loon mortality in the Maine.
It is now illegal to sell a bare — unpainted — lead jig for fishing that weighs 1 ounce or less, or measures 2½ inches or less in length, because of regulations set into effect on Sept. 1. As of September 2017, the use of these bare lead jigs also will be banned.
“Using lead-free tackle will make an enormous difference for loons,” Maine Audubon wildlife biologist Susan Gallo said.
These new regulations should come as no surprise to Maine anglers or outfitters. Both regulations were scheduled in 2013 as a part of An Act to Protect Maine’s Loons by Banning Lead Sinkers and Jigs, which initially banned the sale and use of lead sinkers weighing an ounce or less or measuring 2½ inches or less in length.
“It’s been well communicated by the Department [of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife],” Dave Lorenz, owner of Old Town Trading Post, said. “Everything we carry is all painted. … We don’t carry any plain lead jig heads. It’s been communicated very well.”
In response to Maine and other northeast states banning lead fishing tackle, a growing number of manufactures are producing lead-free tackle made of metals such as steel, tin and bismuth.
Maine’s first regulation on lead fishing tackle was enacted in 2002, when the use of lead sinkers weighing less than a half-ounce was banned.
At the time, lead poisoning was responsible for nearly one-third of the documented mortalities of adult loons in Maine, according to data collected by Tufts Wildlife Clinic and the Biodiversity Research Institute.
“Adult loons either ingest lead when they catch fish with lead sinkers and jigs attached, or they pick up lead objects while eating the gravel they need to digest their food from lake bottoms,” Gallo said.
After initial lead regulations in 2002, there was a slight drop in adult loon mortality in Maine, with just over 23 percent of the loon carcasses collected between 2002 and 2012 determined to have died from lead poisoning.
“We kept tracking mortality, and it did go down a little bit, but not significantly,” Gallo said. “What we found, when the loons died from lead poisoning, there was almost always an object in the gizzard, and I’d say 70 percent of those objects were jigs.”
After An Act to Protect Maine’s Loons was passed in 2013, Maine Audubon — along with many partners including the DIF&W, Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, Bass Nation, and the Maine Lakes Society — created the Fish Lead-Free Initiative, a coalition with the goal of helping anglers make the switch to lead-free tackle.
“We wanted to get the word out to anglers that making the switch to lead-free can be easy, now that there are so many products available for purchase in local stores and online,” Gallo said. “We’re so glad to see the loon protection regulations phased in and want to help anglers comply with the new laws.”
Since 2013, mortality because of lead poisoning has dropped to just under 20 percent of the carcasses collected.
“It’s a very positive step,” said Diane Winn, co-owner of Avian Haven, a bird rehabilitation center in Freedom that typically receives two to three loons with lead poisoning every year.
Unfortunately, by the time someone catches a loon with lead poisoning and transports it to Avian Haven, the lead has done too much damage for the bird to be saved.
“Lead damages red blood cells so they lose their capacity to provide oxygen to the body,” Winn explained. “So a loon in advanced stages of lead poisoning will appear to be in respiratory distress. It will be lethargic, debilitated, and sometimes they’ll make some grunts or moans accompanying their breath sounds.”
On Aug. 17, Avian Haven received a loon that had washed ashore on East Pond in the Belgrade Lakes Region. At the bird rehabilitation center, the loon was assigned the case number 2016-1818, and an X-ray revealed a lead object in the bird’s gizzard.
“We started a chelating agent immediately and removed the object the next day,” Winn said. “She remained lethargic and weak.”
The loon died on Aug. 26.
The reality is, although Maine and other states are taking steps to reduce the presence of lead in lakes and ponds, lead can’t be erased from freshwater completely. People have been using — and losing — lead tackle in Maine for generations.
Also, the current regulations in Maine do not ban painted lead jigs — they only ban bald lead jigs — which the Maine Audubon claims are equally harmful to loons. Studies by biologists at Tufts Wildlife Clinic have shown that the paint on lead jigs can wear off in a matter of days in the loons acidic gizzard, where it is tumbled with the gravel and rocks loons ingest to help digest their food.
“We’ll have to wait and see how the data plays out and how many loons we’re losing to lead in the next 10 years,” Gallo said. “That will lead us to decide whether we want to pursue more.”
“The good news is, No. 1, the anglers are aware of it,” she continued. “They’re changing [the fishing gear they use], and the alternatives are a lot more available.”
To learn about Fish Lead Free at fishleadfree.org, where you can find a list of places in Maine where you can dispose of old lead tackle, as well as places where you can buy new, lead-free tackle.