Bill back at Minnesota Capitol to ban small lead fishing tackle
Supporters say nontoxic alternatives are getting better and that loons don't need to die from lead poisoning.
ST. PAUL — Efforts are underway at the Minnesota Capitol again this year to reduce the deaths of loons and other waterfowl by banning the sale and use of small lead fishing tackle.
A bill in the state House, HF944, would prohibit the sale of fishing jigs or sinkers 2 1/2 inches or less in length and weighing 1 ounce or less starting Jan. 1, 2026. Use of such jigs and sinkers would be prohibited after July 1, 2026.
The bill was introduced by Rep. Peter Fischer, DFL-Maplewood. A similar bill is expected in the Senate.
The effort is aimed at keeping lead away from loons, swans and other water birds that ingest the lead tackle by chance, either by eating fish that have broken-off tackle in them or, likely more commonly, mistaking the jigs or weights for the small stones they need to digest their food.
While opponents of the lead tackle ban note Minnesota's loon population is strong even with lead tackle in the environment, supporters of the legislation say the law would prevent needless suffering by the state’s official bird.
Similar bills have been introduced, but failed to pass, several times over the past 20 years, with opposition from some of the state’s largest tackle manufacturers. The American Sportfishing Association and the National Marine Manufacturers Association, both industry trade groups, strongly oppose lead tackle regulations. The groups note that lead tackle regulations are aimed at the "morality of individual loon deaths" while natural resources should be managed at population levels.
“We oppose banning traditional lead fishing tackle when there is no sound, scientific evidence that there is a population-level problem with loons,” Connor Bevan, inland fisheries policy manager for the American Sportfishing Association, told the News Tribune.
Bevan added that the group supports non-toxic alternatives to lead tackle and even state-sponsored education, lead tackle buy-backs and tackle exchange programs. "But we believe the decision should be up to the individual angler," he said.
Yet, supporters say the time to get more lead out of the environment is past due.
“We’ve been working on this issue since the 1970s. We know what the problem is. We have a reasonable solution. Let’s get it done this year,” said Carrol Henderson, retired director of the Nongame Wildlife Program at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and a major force behind the effort to ban small lead tackle.
Henderson said there has been heavy pushback in recent years due to misunderstanding or misinformation on the intentions of the legislation, adding that the bill’s intent can be simplified even more to make it clear that it doesn’t include wire and lead bottom bouncers, downrigger balls or jigs or weights larger than an ounce.
To make it even more clear, the bill could simply exempt any lead item larger than an inch in diameter, Henderson noted.
“It’s the small tackle that’s the problem. For loons, if you made it anything under 15 millimeters (0.6 inches in diameter) that would prevent most of the problems,” Henderson said.
To get swans off the lead hit list, Henderson said anything smaller than 25 millimeters should be banned, or about 1 inch in diameter.
“We have swans that die from lead poisoning just about every winter, when they congregate at open water areas that are popular fishing spots,” Henderson said.
The effort comes as lead spurred more bad news in Minnesota. On Feb. 10, state health officials urged all employees of Federal Cartridge Co. in Anoka to have their children tested for elevated lead levels after four children were found with unsafe levels of lead in their blood after their parents who worked at the plant brought home lead dust on their clothing.
The same thing happened in 2019 at Water Gremlin fishing tackle company in White Bear Lake, where 24 children were found with unsafe lead levels in their blood. The Minnesota Department of Health took court action in late October 2019 to shut down Water Gremlin's lead casting operations.
A slow death
Lead is a deadly neurotoxin. That's the reason the stuff was taken out of paint and gasoline decades ago to protect humans, especially children. Lead in old pipes was the root of the massive Flint, Michigan, water system debacle, and lead water lines are an issue in hundreds of Duluth’s older homes.
But it’s also an issue for animals, both in the form of lost fishing tackle and spent ammunition.
“I remember when I was out at Lac Qui Parle (wildlife area in western Minnesota) in 1978 and we went out and picked up 300 dead geese in the fields,” Henderson said. “We thought they had been wounded by hunters. But it turned out they were dying from lead poisoning, picking up the shot as they fed in the farm fields where hunters had been shooting before. ... And the eagles that were feeding on the dead geese were dying, too, also from lead poisoning.”
That discovery eventually led to Minnesota banning lead shot for waterfowl hunting, and lead shot has been illegal for waterfowl hunting nationwide since 1988 in an effort to protect eagles and other birds of prey, as well as the waterfowl themselves. California has banned lead rifle bullets for hunting to protect condors and other birds of prey that feed on carcasses.
Lead dissolves into the bird's bloodstream. The lead in a 1/8-ounce split-shot sinker is enough to kill a loon. According to Minnesota Department of Natural Resources biologists, lead at levels as low as 0.02 parts per million are toxic to loons. Anything over 1 part per million is fatal.
A loon with lead poisoning may fly poorly, have crash landings or stagger onto the ground. Lead-poisoned loons often gasp and tremble and their wings droop as lead moves through the bloodstream. Eventually the loon stops eating and seeks seclusion, becoming emaciated and often dying within two or three weeks.
It's believed most poisoned loons are never recovered. But, of the dead loons in the wild that are recovered, lead is the leading cause of death. Research from six New England states found that, of adult dead loons found, 26% died from lead poisoning. Some popular fishing lakes saw lead as the cause of over 50% of loon deaths.
In Michigan, another 15-year study examined 186 dead loons and revealed that lead poisoning was the leading cause of loon deaths. A study conducted by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found that lead caused 12% of dead adult loons found intact.
Across Minnesota lakes, tons of lead lost each year
Minnesota anglers don't lose much tackle on a given fishing trip. But collectively, tons of lead sinkers and jigs are ending up on lake bottoms each year. That was the conclusion of a 2006 study by Paul Radomsky, a fisheries biologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
The study looked at five popular walleye fishing lakes — Rainy, Namakan, Leech, Mille Lacs and Lake of The Woods — using survey interviews to find out how much fishing tackle anglers lost.
On each trip, each angler lost remarkably little tackle, the study found. For example, on average, one leadhead jig was lost every 40 hours of fishing. But when multiplied by millions of anglers over millions of hours fished, year after year, the lead is piling up.
During the summer of 2004, anglers in the five lakes surveyed lost an estimated 215,000 pieces of tackle to snags and broken line. Of that, about 100,000 pieces were made of lead, totaling more than 1 ton of lead lost in the lakes.
And that was just five lakes over one summer. Over 20 years, using DNR survey data, the study estimates anglers left more than 1 million pieces of lead in Lake Mille Lacs alone. That adds up to more than 9 tons of lead in one lake.
Slow road to lead-free
Minnesota environmental agencies began their first push for nontoxic tackle more than 20 years ago, asking anglers to make the switch from lead and offering free unleaded options at tackle exchanges, a voluntary education effort called “ Get the Lead Out .” But some anglers, and several lead tackle manufacturers, have battled back, saying non-toxic alternatives are more expensive and don’t work as well. Moreover, they note, Minnesota’s loon population — about 12,000 at peak in summer — is stable and not in danger of crashing.
Some anglers even hyped the effort as some sort of evil environmentalist plot to stop fishing entirely.
Opponents said the move to nontoxic tackle would cost anglers more money, which is true, at least for now. Lead is perfect for molding into small fishing tackle because it is soft, easily formed and especially inexpensive. Tungsten, tin, zinc, bismuth and other materials can be molded like lead, but are often more expensive to start.
Meanwhile the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has expanded its "Get the Lead Out" campaign, using money from oil giant BP as part of the massive legal penalty the company paid for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil well explosion and spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The state received $1.27 million in 2020 earmarked specifically to revive the "Get the Lead Out" program to promote the use of nontoxic fishing tackle in an effort to save loons. (Minnesota loons became an issue in the oil spill settlement because most of the state's 12,000 loons spend their winters in the Gulf. The state received $6 million in all for loon conservation efforts in the settlement.)
162 manufacturers offer nontoxic tackle, retailers adding more
Non-toxic jigs and weights now are available at nearly all sporting goods stores and online retailers. The MPCA's "Get the Lead Out" webpage lists 162 companies that make non-toxic fishing tackle and are widely available, several of them based in Minnesota. Materials used instead of lead include tungsten, bismuth, glass, tin, steel, iron, cement, alloys and even pewter.
Not only are small, specialty tackle companies capturing the growing nontoxic market, but Minnesota-based tackle giants like Clam, Rapala and Northland also are offering more unleaded alternatives in more sizes, shapes and colors. That's key to attracting hardcore jig anglers who sometimes have hundreds of their favorite jigs on hand in dozens of shapes, sizes and color options.
Prices for unleaded tackle are still higher, in part because raw materials are more expensive, especially tungsten. But supporters say the gap will narrow as more unleaded tackle is made and companies gear up more production lines. (The original steel shot non-toxic waterfowl shotgun loads were once far more expensive than lead, for example. Now, popular steel shot shells are often less expensive than comparable lead shells.)
A two-pack of Northland ¼-ounce tungsten jigs, for example, sells for $6.99 on the company’s website, $3.50 apiece. For the same price, an angler can buy a six-pack of the company's lead Gumball jigs, or $1.16 each.
The Scheels sporting goods website offers Minnesota-based Clam tungsten ProTackle Drop Tg jigs in a three-pack for $9.99.
The Cabelas/Bass Pro Shops website lists a package of 72 nontoxic tin Bass Pro Shops split-shot sinkers for $8.79, or about 12 cents apiece. But for $6.29 anglers can buy 124 lead split shot sinkers, about 5 cents apiece.
Compared to the price of boats, gas and gear, spending a few extra cents per piece of tackle to move to non-toxic tackle shouldn’t be an issue for most anglers to help get lead out of the environment, Henderson noted.
“‘As demand increases, and supply increases for non-toxic fishing tackle, the price will come down. It already has some,’’ Henderson noted.
Lead fishing tackle restrictions elsewhere
- New Hampshire banned the use and sale of lead fishing sinkers that weigh less than an ounce and lead jigs smaller than an inch.
- Maine and New York have banned the sale of lead sinkers weighing a half-ounce or less.
- Vermont banned the sale of lead sinkers weighing a half-ounce or less starting in 2006 and then the use of those lead sinkers in the state in 2007.
- Massachusetts Fisheries & Wildlife Board prohibits the use of lead sinkers, weights and jigs.
- Washington state prohibits the use of lead weights and jigs on 12 lakes in the state where loons breed and raise their young. Anglers cannot use lead weights smaller than 1.5 inches.
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has banned lead sinkers in two national wildlife refuges and Yellowstone National Park; restrictions have been discussed on the use of lead sinkers and jigs at other national wildlife refuges where loons and trumpeter swans breed.
- Great Britain restricted the use of lead fishing weights weighing less than 1 ounce.
- In Canada, you can't use any lead fishing sinkers or jigs in Canada's national parks and wildlife areas.
Rebate for tackle shops offering nontoxic choices
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency offers up to a $2,000 rebate to any retail store in the state that sells non-toxic fishing tackle, up to 35% of the cost of the tackle.
Eligible applicants include owners or operators of brick-and-mortar retail establishments located in Minnesota that sell fishing bait and tackle. They must be for-profit businesses with 100 full-time equivalent employees or less (including parent companies and all business operations).
For more information, go to pca.state.mn.us/grants-and-loans/get-the-lead-out-lead-free-fishing-tackle-rebate-program.