Lead tackle is killing Alaska's wild birds, and only anglers can save them

The loon drifts in lethargic circles, its white-collared neck drooping into the water. Fish dart below, but the bird cannot eat. Paralysis spreads from its broad webbed feet to the lungs that once sustained five-minute dives. As its organs shut down, the loon will slowly suffocate or starve. Every year, an estimated 16 million birds suffer this torturous death from lead poisoning. Accidental ingestion of lead fishing tackle causes up to half of all adult loon deaths. But with a few small choices, anglers can help save the wildlife that share our waterways.

Alaska has a lot to protect as the only place in North America that all five loon species call home. Awkward on land, they become feathered torpedoes underwater, hunting prey by sight. Loons may consume fish with tackle still attached, or swallow lost sinkers instead of pebbles as digestive aids. "They are extremely susceptible to lead toxicity due to their feeding behavior," says Dr. Karen Higgs, a veterinarian with the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage. Even a small sinker will kill a loon within two to four weeks. Since loons reproduce slowly, losing adult birds can affect the entire population. A study of New Hampshire's loons found that lead tackle reduced the state's loon population by 43% across a 23-year period.

Other species also suffer from lead in the environment. Tundra Swans have developed lead toxicosis after foraging in contaminated mud, while raptors get exposed through lead-laden prey. Half of all Bald and Golden Eagles in the United States have lead poisoning, according to a study published in 2022.

Bird TLC has successfully treated several eagles with chelation, which scrubs lead from the blood. But early intervention is key, and by the time most birds show symptoms, they are beyond the reach of help-sometimes literally. Loons seldom come ashore and evade humans in the water. Dr. Higgs recalls two cases where afflicted loons could not be captured until the lakes froze, and it was too late to save them.

Birds are not the only animals vulnerable to toxic fishing gear: it's hazardous to humans, too. Thirty-eight cases reported to U.S. poison control centers in 2016 concerned children ingesting lead fishing tackle. Just handling sinkers deposits lead on the skin, a quarter of which can be transferred from the hands to the mouth. Melting lead for homemade fishing gear can also result in significant lead exposure. Accumulation of lead in the body causes chronic health issues such as brain damage, kidney failure, and reproductive problems.

An easy way to remove lead from bodies is to remove it from tackle boxes. That's the goal of Loons, Lines, and Lead, a conservation partnership between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bird Treatment and Learning Center, the Anchorage Waterways Council, Alaska Conservation Foundation, and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. As part of its initiative, the group gives out non-toxic sinkers made from steel, tin, glass, and tungsten. Although few retailers currently stock these alternatives, anglers' requests will demonstrate consumer demand.

"Just by making a simple choice, you're preventing the needless death of loons, eagles, and other birds," says Tamara Zeller, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who supports the effort.

Even non-toxic tackle can harm wildlife if anglers leave behind their lines. Entangled birds may drown, starve, or die of injuries. Proper line disposal prevents these tragedies. Loons, Lines, and Lead has sponsored nearly 30 monofilament collection bins at popular fishing spots across Anchorage, with more on the way this summer. The group also hosts community programs that teach young Alaskans about responsible fishing, preserving traditions and the environment.

Responsible fishing lets Alaskans protect their natural heritage even when the government fails to do so. Six states within the Common Loon's breeding range have banned or restricted the use of lead tackle, but Alaska is not among them.

"We've taken lead out of gas, out of paint," says Zeller. "Why are we throwing it in our waterways?"

With better options available, we don't have to. Anglers' choices can keep both bobbers and birds afloat on the lakes of the Last Frontier.

Bird Treatment and Learning Center, whose mission is to care and advocate for Alaska's wild birds, is proud to partner in the Loons, Lines, and Lead outreach campaign. Learn more about this initiative here: https://lovealoon.org/

J.K. Ullrich is a freelance science writer and author. She volunteers at the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage.

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