The use of lead fishing sinkers and lead jigs weighing less than 1 ounce is now prohibited in all inland waters of the Commonwealth. In terms of this regulation, “lead sinker” or “lead weight” means any sinker or weight made from lead that weighs less than 1 ounce. The definition of “lead sinker” shall not include any other sinkers, fishing lures, and/or fishing tackle including, but not limited to, artificial lures, hooks, weighted flies, lead-core or other weighted fishing lines. “Lead jig” means any lead-weighted hook that weighs less than 1 ounce.
The Fisheries and Wildlife Board has taken a regulatory action prohibiting the use of certain lead sinkers and jigs. This environmentally responsible action was taken primarily as a conservative “loon-protective measure.” Beginning January 1, 2012, the use of lead sinkers and jigs of less than one ounce in all inland waters of Massachusetts is prohibited. The regulation was mainly implemented to protect the small population of the Common Loon (Gavia immer) in the state, a listed Species of Special Concern in the Commonwealth.
The Common Loon nested in Massachusetts historically, but was extirpated in the late nineteenth century. In 1975, however, a pair of loons was discovered nesting in Quabbin Reservoir. The population has increased since then, and today approximately 32 territorial pairs can be found on 14 lakes, ponds, and reservoirs in the Commonwealth. Common Loons reach the southern limits of their North American breeding range in Massachusetts. Large piscivorous birds that rely on sight to capture their prey, loons require relatively large nesting territories and water of high clarity; hence their population growth here is limited by the availability of this habitat. The Quabbin and Wachusett reservoirs support the core of the state’s total loon population, with 16 and 4 pairs, respectively.
Ingestion of lead fishing gear is the single largest cause of mortality for adult loons in New England. Veterinarians at Tufts University’s School of Veterinary Medicine have examined 483 dead adult loons from fresh water since 1987 and determined that approximately 44% of these birds died as the result of lead poisoning. Their research documented that ingestion of lead sinkers and jigs accounted for approximately 79% of the lead objects recovered from the loons that died from lead toxicosis in fresh water. A single lead sinker or split shot can poison a loon. A bird with lead poisoning will exhibit physical and behavioral changes, including loss of balance, gasping, tremors, and impaired ability to fly. The weakened bird is more vulnerable to predators and may have trouble feeding, mating, nesting, and caring for its young. It becomes emaciated and often dies within 2 to 3 weeks after ingesting the lead.
How do loons ingest lead sinkers?
There are at least two ways loons ingest lead sinkers and lead jigs. One is when loons take minnows hooked as bait on fishing line. In eating the minnow, the loon breaks off the line and then swallows the hook, line, swivel, and sinker or jig. A second ingestion method apparently occurs when loons ingest small pebbles from lake bottoms to help grind food in their gizzards. It appears they may inadvertently swallow lead sinkers and jigs while engaged in this activity, or are perhaps actively selecting them for some reason (possibly because of their unique size, shape, or shine).
Safe Fishing Sinkers
Ecologically safe alternatives to lead sinkers and lead jigs (such as steel and tin) are now readily available from many sources and come in a wide variety of styles, shapes, weights, and sizes to meet every type of fishing need. Through this new conservation regulation it is possible to reduce the chance of lead poisoning of loons, a goal all sportsmen should support. Most anglers who have experienced the presence of loons would agree that sightings of these magnificent birds and the enjoyment of their iconic, eerie calls adds greatly to the quality of any fishing experience.