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Love Loons and other Minnesota wildlife? Then Get the Lead Out (plus two Cook County drop-off sites)

Feb 20, 2024 07:48AM ● By Content Editor
Photo provided

By Ann Marie Mershon for Boreal Community Media - February 14, 2024

 We Minnesotans take great pride in our loons, reveling in their plaintive calls as we paddle, fish, or just hang around enjoying our many lakes. What would Fisherman’s Picnic be without the loon-calling contest? Minnesota is loon central, with more loons than all the other states combined (except Alaska), and our new state seal features a loon lifting from the water. If you’ve ever seen a loon dance, you remember the excitement of glimpsing one of the most magical moments the wilderness has to offer.

 State of Minnesota 

Sadly, our loon population is slowly declining, and a major culprit is lead. Lead sinkers, lead shot, and lead lures are responsible for up to 25% of loon deaths, according to the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). That’s serious.

Loons pick up lost tackle and shot while gathering pebbles from the lake bottom for their gizzards. They’re also exposed when they eat fish that have ingested lead. One lead jig or sinker can kill a loon in two or three weeks. First, the loon begins to gasp and tremble as the lead is carried through its bloodstream. Its wings droop, and it loses appetite, eventually hiding among aquatic vegetation as it becomes more and more emaciated. 

Lead also poisons eagles, other raptors, swans, and some mammals, including humans.

Dangers of Lead

Yes, lead poisons humans. Lead can cause brain and nerve damage, slowed growth in children, and high blood pressure in adults. Lead-based paint has been banned in the US since 1978, and leaded gas has been banned since 1996, though it’s still used in aviation, motorsports, and other off-road uses.

Lead is dangerous enough that lead shot has been banned from wetlands across the EU, and smaller lead fishing weights have been banned in the UK, Denmark, and many eastern states (New York, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire). Unfortunately, Minnesota has not yet banned lead tackle, though bills have been introduced repeatedly in the legislature over the past 20 years. It’s up to us to get rid of the lead in our tackle boxes.

The Environmental Pollution Agency strongly recommends against home manufacture of leaded tackle. Since many people still choose to do so (despite the risk to family members), they offer safety instructions for people who make lead tackle at home. 

 The EPA warns never to put a lead sinker in your mouth or bite down on slip shot, and to always wash your hands thoroughly after handling lead sinkers or cleaning a tackle box. Since many of us have done this our whole lives, this is a bit shocking.

Clearly, lead tackle leads to risks for humans as well as waterfowl.

 Get the Lead Out program logo from the MPCA

Minnesota to the rescue!

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has initiated a program called Get the Lead Out, an effort to educate the public, get lead tackle off store shelves, and encourage fishermen (and hunters) to find alternatives to lead. Several non-toxic alternatives are available on the market, including tungsten, bismuth, steel, tin, glass & stone, and metal composite lures and sinkers. The MPCA site includes a comprehensive listing of companies that offer lead-free tackle.

If you fish, you should recycle any lead tackle as hazardous waste. Make a point of sorting through your tackle box for any lead sinkers or tackle with a lead warning on the label. Most tackle with any density to it, especially older tackle, contains lead. If you’re not sure, use a pliers to see if you can manipulate the metal. Lead is malleable and can be molded and shaped. Another way to test tackle is to scrape away an area of paint and scratch the metal on paper. Lead leaves a gray mark. 

Businesses that sell fishing tackle can participate in a state rebate program. Once a business signs up (by email), they can submit invoices for a 35% rebate on qualifying lead-free tackle. Stores must have less than 100 full-time employees, and they can qualify for a rebate of up to $2000. Information is available online at the MPCA site.

You can also help by spreading the word. Encourage your fishing friends to sort through their tackle and get rid of all the lead lures and sinkers. They can drop them off at designated stores, including Buck’s Hardware in Grand Marais and Trail Center, up the Gunflint Trail. Please encourage other tackle distributors to sign up for the rebate program (above). 

For more information…

Want to know more about loons, lead, and Get the Lead Out? The Cook County Master Naturalists are hosting a free session at Cook County Higher Education on Tuesday, February 20th at 6:30 pm about this issue. Jerry Wilkes, retired science teacher and Devil Track Lake Association President will share lead information, offer samples of free non-lead tackle, and answer questions about the program. Attendees are also encouraged to bring their tacklebox to the meeting and learn to identify lead in their tackle. 

Wilkes is passionate about the dangers of lead for our waterfowl and ourselves. “We humans tend to disrespect the dangers of lead poisoning because lead is so pervasive in our environment. Leaded gasoline has delivered airborne lead to every corner of the world. It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat.” 

If you love our loons, getting the lead out is one way to preserve their future—and yours!

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