Toxic lead fishing weights, like lead shot and lead paint, may be banned in California.
Bird hunters have been grousing (get it?) since 1991 about the federal ban on lead shot. Now it could be fishermen’s turn, as California looks to review the environmental impact of lead fishing weights, and potentially pass a ban on the useful—but toxic—substance.
Such a ban may also affect zinc and copper sinkers, and lures that incorporate those materials.
California Department of Toxic Substance Control spokesman Karl Palmer responded to the rapidly developing opposition among anglers.
It’s a work plan over 3 years, so in that 3 year period we would be having more dialogue, we would be having workshops, getting experts in the field in to talk to us
The move is part of the Green Chemistry Initiative, which is a broader statewide plan to update environmental regulations.
It’s not fish, but birds that are primarily at risk for lead poisoning from sinker ingestion. Smaller sinkers—especially split-shot sinkers—can be accidentally ingested along with the gravel that birds swallow to help them grind up food in their gizzards. Bans on toxic sinkers have been enacted in New York, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire.
Intuitively, it seems like contamination from sinkers can’t possibly equal that of birdshot. Studies prior to the 1991 ban estimated that 6,000 metric tons of shot were lost in American waters every year.
In 1994, the EPA estimated that the production of toxic sinkers—which also includes brass and zinc—totaled 2,500 metric tons.
But environmental officials in New York found lead fishing weights were responsible for 30% of deaths in common loons, not including those killed by epidemics of of type E botulism on Lake Erie. And while it’s impossible to say exactly what percentage of fishing sinkers are lost in the water, experience suggests that it’s a lot.
“You do lose quite a bit, so maybe $10-$15 dollars a trip we would lose,” said Kenji Nakagawa, a fisherman in the Stockton area.
More from Wide Open Spaces:
Fishermen counter that drop-in replacements for lead sinkers are less effective, more costly, or both. Tungsten alloys can actually make a denser sinker have higher performance, but they’re several times more expensive.
Bismuth is nearly as dense as lead and almost non-toxic, but still more costly. Andrew Grafius, manager at Outdoor Sports in the Stockton area said:
So, if you had a bait like this, a laser mino, it’s a three ounce bait going for five dollars. If you took that and went to a Tungsten weight, this is nine dollars for one ounce. A weight like this is 12 ounces, if you do 12 ounces times nine dollars, that weight will now be $108.
Grafius’ math is a little goofy on its face—price and weight don’t rise at the same rate—but the American Sportfishing Association is suggesting an even higher rise in cost for the average fishermen. Their consumer impact reports on past bans show a potential price increase of 10 to 20 times present numbers. They also point out that loon populations are on the rise in New York and elsewhere, and that the EPA has found that lead fishing weights pose no significant risk to wildlife.
That could price a lot of people out of the sport, according to the California Sportfishing League. “Existing state regulations have already contributed to a significant decline in fishing participation,” said president David Dickerson, of the California Sportfishing League.
Additional regulations will not only encourage fishing gear manufacturers to flee California to business friendly states. Furthermore, when fishing is no longer an accessible and affordable source of recreation for millions of anglers, it will have a substantial impact on California’s economy and jobs.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reported decreases in fishing participation in California. From 2001 to 2006, freshwater participation fell 32%, while saltwater declined 22%.