January 2013

Lead Used in Fishing Littering San Francisco Bay

By George Nelson

The use of lead in fishing tackle, sinkers and jigs has come under considerable flak from environmental groups in recent years, with many calling for a ban on the use of the metal in fishing due to its toxicity. 

Lead is a perfect material to use for fishing weights. Heavy in relation to its size, a small lead weight makes minimal commotion on the water’s surface and sinks quickly, dropping the line without disturbing the fish below. It’s resistant to rust and corrosion; ideal for ocean fishing since salt water is especially erosive. Lead’s pliability and low melting point allows fishermen to easily alter the shape of each weight. And the metal’s low cost adds to its favorability; lost weights are reasonably cheap to replace. 

The U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that more than 4,000 metric tons of lead – in excess of 450 million sinkers – may be dropped in American waters each year through lost fishing equipment. No one knows how much fishing-related lead is deposited in and around the San Francisco Bay. 

When ingested lead can wreak havoc on the body, causing brain damage, high blood pressure, kidney disease, impotence and even death. Growing children are particularly vulnerable; lead exposure can result in permanent behavior and learning difficulties.

Birds and mammals exposed to the metal have been shown to suffer from lead poisoning in much the same way humans do. Raptors, including the California condor, have been known to suffer from lead poisoning by consuming game birds or mammals that have been shot with lead ammunition. 

Lead sinkers – and shot gun pellets – that settle on the Bay bottom can be mistaken for the grit that waterfowl consume to aid in grinding food. Birds can also ingest weights attached to broken fishing line in hooked fish. Lead oxidises extremely slowly and typically doesn’t dissolve in water, remaining in the Bay and Pacific Ocean indefinitely. Bay Area birds – such as loons, swans and ducks – have been found to swallow sinkers as large as 2.75 ounces. 

Over the last few decades state and federal governments have engaged in significant efforts to reduce lead in drinking water, household paint, landfills, and gasoline, among other things. In 2010 the Centre of Biological Diversity (CBD) – a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting endangered species - called on the U.S. EPA to “ban the manufacture, processing and distribution in commerce of lead shot, bullets and fishing sinkers.” However, U.S. EPA concluded that it doesn’t have the authority to institute a ban. 

Hunters and fisherpeople, for their part, claim that there’s no evidence that lead deposits are causing widespread damage to wildlife. According to Chris Cox, the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action’s executive director, “The EPA has made it abundantly clear that lead ammunition is exempt from the Toxic Substances Control Act. Although lead fishing tackle is not exempt from TSCA, the EPA has expressly stated that there is no scientific evidence warranting a ban. The CBD’s goal is a nationwide ban on lead ammunition and fishing tackle and it looks for any means to achieve it. That is simply unacceptable and we will continue to oppose CBD’s anti-sportsmen agenda.”

“There have been over 500 studies proving that lead is highly dangerous to wildlife, especially birds who feed in and around water,” countered Jeff Miller, Conservation Advocate for CBD. “The evidence is overwhelming. The situation surrounding the ban on lead has become very political. In twenty years time lead will have almost certainly been made illegal in the fishing industry and we are going to be looking back asking ourselves ‘why didn’t we act sooner?’ It is a matter of persuading the EPA to use their influence now before we do any more harm to the environment.” 

Alternatives to lead fishing weights – including tin, bismuth, steel and tungsten-nickel alloy sinkers – are available, but tend to be more expensive. Only one of seven fishermen interviewed along the Central Waterfront was using a sinker made from a material other than lead. “I had nothing else to use as I’ve lost all my lead sinkers, that’s why I’m using this steel one,” Mike Woo, 48, said. “I haven’t had a chance to get to the tackle shop yet.” 

According to Joe Podesta, 57, who has fished the Bay for more 15 years, often from the Central Waterfront, “I lose a couple of sinkers every week but that’s the rules of the game. In all my years of fishing I haven’t seen any negative changes to the wildlife so I won’t be swapping my lead for anything else anytime soon.”

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