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Lead Fishing Weight Ban: Will California’s proposal sink or swim?

An Assembly member hopes to outlaw the tackle box item, but advocacy groups say legislations lacks scientific backing.

Editor’s Note: This Standing Watch article was written ahead of the Assembly’s April 24 hearing on AB 2787. An update on the bill will be published in The Log‘s next issue, which comes out May 4.

SACRAMENTO — A recent proposal to ban the use of lead weights in California’s waterways has the bill’s opponents fishing for answers. Such opponents are specifically asking whether a proposal to ban certain-sized lead fishing weights and sinkers is based upon any scientific research. The question is a fair one to ask. Legislation founded researched/scientific evidence is, generally speaking, tighter and harder to challenge than those strictly based upon emotions or ideals.

Lead fishing weights are commonly used due to their low cost, wide availability, density and malleability, according to the American Fisheries Society.

The evidence versus emotion juxtaposition is in full play with Assembly Bill 2787 (AB 2787), which was introduced by Assembly member Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, in February. Quirk, in a statement released shortly after the introduction of his bill, stated splitshots and other forms of lead fishing weights “are killing California wildlife.”

“Many birds consume river gravel to aid in mashing and digesting food. Often they accidentally ingest discarded lead fishing weights. The lead poisons their liver, leading to a slow death. Water fowl, in particular, are common victims,” Quirk said in his statement.

Recreational fishing groups were quick to challenge Quirk’s statement (and proposal), arguing his efforts were founded on emotional appeal instead of scientific backing.

California Sportfishing League (CSL), a statewide angling lobby, provided six talking points to those who opposed the proposed ban on lead fishing weights. Two of the talking points questioned whether AB 2787 was based on scientific research. (The other four talking points claimed AB 2787 would be economically harmful.)

“There is no evidence that lead fishing weights threaten California wildlife populations in California. Isolated incidences in California do not suggest a significant risk, or the justification for a statewide ban,” one of the talking points stated.

“While lead bans exist in some Northeastern states or other countries, wildlife there are not commonly found in California,” the other talking point stated.

The American Sportfishing Association (ASA) raised the stakes and, in a policy position posted on its website in September 2017, stated the connection between lead fishing weights and waterfowl deaths isn’t strong enough to warrant legislative restrictions on the popular tackle box item.

“Mortality in some waterbird species, notably the common loon, has been linked to the ingestion of lead fishing tackle; however, it has only been shown to affect a small number of individual birds, not the health of the population,” ASA officials stated.

The national angling lobby added they have not found enough research to justify a nationwide ban on lead fishing weights.

“ASA believes insufficient data exists to warrant nation-wide bans on lead tackle. [The organization] acknowledges that a small number of individual waterbirds have died from lead toxicosis associated with discarded or lost lead tackle; however, ASA believes the data do not demonstrate that lead tackle is a threat to the health of loon or other waterbird populations,” the lobby stated as part of its policy position.

“In general, loon and other waterbird populations are subject to much more substantial threats, such as habitat loss through shoreline development, disease, water quality issues and predators,” ASA officials continued.

The policy position added non-lead alternative sinkers and weights could cost 10 to 20 times more than their lead counterparts. Added expenses, ASA and CSL officials argued, would cause fewer anglers to drop a line in the water (and, hence, harming the economy on multiple levels).

American Fisheries Society published a policy position in 2012, stating a hazardous connection between lead poising and wildlife “became apparent during the 1970s and 1980s.”

“Loons and swans ingest lead fishing tackle when they mistake small lead sinkers and jigheads for the small stones they pick up from the bottom of lakes and rivers to help them digest their food, or when they ingest fishing line with a lead sinker still attached to a baited hook,” the American Fisheries Society policy position stated. “A single ingested lead sinker or jighead will expose a waterbird to a lethal dose of lead since digested lead is readily absorbed into animal tissue.”

The policy position did acknowledge lead poisoning among waterfowl and other wildlife is possible from sources, but lead fishing weights, at certain sizes, can be easily ingested.

A scientific report cited by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in 2008 positioned lead fishing weights as a hazardous threat to wildlife.

“Millions of pounds of lead used in hunting, fishing and shooting sports wind up in the environment each year and can threaten or kill wildlife, according to a new scientific report,” USGC staff stated in an archived post on its website. “Lead is a metal with no known beneficial role in biological systems, and its use in gasoline, paint, pesticides, and solder in food cans has nearly been eliminated. Although lead shot was banned for waterfowl hunting in 1991, its use in ammunition for upland hunting, shooting sports, and in fishing tackle remains common.”

USGS’s archived post did note the authors of the cited report acknowledged more information was needed to determine some aspects of the relationship between lead fishing weights and its effects on wildlife. The need for more information, however, did not preclude the report’s authors from maintaining its position: lead does not pose any benefits for wildlife.

“While noting that more information is needed on some aspects of the impact of lead on wildlife, the authors said that numerous studies already documented adverse effects to wildlife, especially waterbirds and scavenging species, like hawks and eagles,” the report cited by USGS stated. “Lead exposure from ingested lead shot, bullets, and fishing sinkers also has been reported in reptiles, and studies near shooting ranges have shown evidence of lead poisoning in small mammals.”

A report published in “The Journal of Wildlife Management” in September 2017, meanwhile, stated 48.6 percent of the adult common loon population in New Hampshire died, between 1989 and 2012, by ingesting small pieces of lead fishing tackle.

CSL quickly pointed out the cited report was limited to loons found in New Hampshire and could not be applied to California.

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Standing Watch/Take Action

In this section you will find resources and supplemental information on what you can do to Take Action. Submit additional information or tips on this issue to editor@thelog.com

Organizations such as ASA and CSL are still urging legislators to directly connect lead fishing weights to harmful effects on the environment.

AB 2787, for example, does not make any mention of scientific research or data – opening the door for Quirk’s proposal to be attacked as emotional and lacking foundation. The bill is scheduled for its first legislative hearing on April 24. Should a bill like AB 2787 advance through the legislature without some sort of data or scientific research cited?

Contact the following legislators and let them know your position.

Assembly member Bill Quirk

assemblymember.quirk@assembly.ca.gov

916-319-2020

510-583-8818

Twitter: @AsmBillQuirk

California Sportfishing League

Marko Mlikotin, Executive Director

info@savefishing.com

916-936-1777

Twitter: @SaveFishing

Center for Biological Diversity

Jeff Miller, Conservation Advocate

jmiller@biologicaldiversity.org.

510-499-9185

Fish and Game Commission

Valerie Termini, Executive Director

valerie.termini@fgc.ca.gov

916-653-4899

California Department of Toxic Substances Control

Director Barbara Lee

Barbara.Lee@dtsc.ca.gov

916-322-0504

American Sportfishing Association

info@asafishing.org

703-519-9691

Twitter: @ASAFishing

Keep America Fishing

Info@KeepAmericaFishing.org

703-519-9691

Twitter: @kaf_fishing