WA Moves To Protect Loons From Lead Tackle

A year after it sent the issue back for further study, the Washington Fish & Wildlife Commission last weekend approved a partial ban on lead fishing “devices,” outlawing jigs and sinkers under 1 1/2 inches long on a limited number of lakes to protect the state’s small breeding population of common loons.

Some had wanted a full ban on lead tackle, others no change in the fishing regulations.

The 12 lakes where the rule affecting weights, sinkers and jigs will go into effect are primarily trout waters located in the mountains of North-central and Northeast Washington. Those items may be no longer than an inch and a half long along their long axis.

“In addition, the commission banned the use of flies containing lead at Long Lake in Ferry County,” says Darren Friedel, a spokesman for the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife in Olympia.

He says the new rules take effect May 1, 2011.

The rule was passed unanimously, according to Rollie Schmitten of Lake Wenatchee in Chelan County, one of nine members on the commission.

“While I supported it for conservation of loons, I did this because of good data and good science,” he said. “I would be cautious about a proliferation of other similar proposals without good data and good science.”

According to the Department of Fish & Wildlife, lead toxicosis is known to or believed to be the cause of death for seven of 21 loons that died in the state between 1999 and 2010.

Anglers do not knowingly poison the birds, but loons looking for pebbles to grind up food in their stomach may inadvertently grab small pinch-on fishing weights and other tackle with lead that we’ve snagged up or otherwise lost at lakes.

The issue is controversial because some anglers fear it is the beginning of a wider crackdown on lead fishing tackle.

Arguing against it, former fisheries biologist, tournament bass angler and lead-weight maker Marc Marcantonio of Steilacoom says not all of the available science was looked at, including a 2010 dissertation by a University of Massachusetts-Amherst grad student who looked at disruption factors at remote Lake Umbagog, on the Maine-New Hampshire border.

“This study reveals far more important issues than lead fishing tackle.  For example, in addition to shoreline development, predation, disease, inadequate forage, trauma, and other well-known factors there are more recently documented significant factors including kayaking and loon watching/photography that affect breeding and rearing success.  Where the ban proponents conclude declining rearing success in Washington is proof that lead tackle should be banned, this study points to different factors including climate change (and other disturbance factors),” Marcantonio wrote in public comment on the proposal.

While the rule affects lakes where the loons are known to nest, he says that by the state’s own words, only two deaths in Washington over the past 13 years occurred where the birds breed, a number that is “statistically insignificant and does not warrant a ban on lead tackle.”

Marcantonio also points to a mid-November memo from Governor Gregoire’s office directing state agencies “to suspend development and adoption of rules for the next 12 months … that is not immediately necessary.”

It continues, saying “that agencies should not suspend all rule making, as rule making is an essential government operations tool.”

The proposal came out of last year’s update to the fishing regs and generated a lot of interest. The Fish & Wildlife Commission tabled it and convened a citizens advisory group which last summer rated four options:

  • A total ban on any lead fishing tackle
  • A partial ban, with no lead fishing weights or jig heads
  • A partial ban with no lead fishing weights or jig heads equal to or less than one ounce or equal to or less than 1-1/2 inches along the longest axis
  • No restriction (no change or “status quo”)

The committee, made up of fishing industry reps, including Marcantonio, and loon advocates among others, largely split its recommendations between the status quo and a total ban.

Bass anglers and other fishermen were exhorted to fight the potential ban, with the American Sportfishing Association arguing it would have “a significant negative impact on recreational anglers and fisheries resources in Washington.”

“Significant” is probably an overstatement looking at the relative sizes and locations of the lakes, but most are planted with trout fry — two receive “catchable” sized rainbows in the spring — and many have Forest Service campgrounds on or nearby.

However, at least two others, Calligan and Hancock in King County, require a spendy pass from a private timber company to access and a third, Hozomeen, is inaccessible except by hike-in anglers and really only easily reached through Canada.

(WDFW)

The affected lakes are:

Ferry, Swan and Long Lakes in Ferry County

Pierre Lake in Stevens County

Big Meadow, Yocum and South Skookum Lakes in Pend Oreille County

Lost, Blue and Bonapartes Lake in Okanogan County

Calligan and Hancock Lakes in King County

Lake Hozomeen in Whatcom County

Several East Coast states also regulate lead tackle to protect loons.

Earlier last month, the Environmental Protection Agency denied a petition to ban lead-based fishing tackle, but the federal agency has since been sued by some of the same groups.

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