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Maine Sportsmen and Conservationists at Odds Over Loon Protection Bill
03/28/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Lead poisoning is the leading cause of death for Maine's adult loons. While the state has banned the sale of some lead-based fishing gear for the past decade, conservationists say the law is not doing enough to protect the birds. As Patty Wight reports, a new bill would expand the ban. But some sportsmen say the move is unnecessary and would harm their livelihoods.

Related Media
Maine Sportsmen and Conservationists at Odds Over Listen
 Duration:
3:40

For the past 26 years, Tufts Veterinary School Associate Professor Mark Pokras has been performing what he refers to as "CSI" on loon carcasses. In the popular TV show, characters examine physical evidence linked to dead bodies to determine the cause of death.

Pokras told members of the Legislature's Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Committee that he's performed a couple thousand necropsies on loon carcasses from across New England. About half the time, he says, he finds ingested lead objects and high lead levels in their tissues.

"This is a real phenomenon - it is killing a lot of loons, not just in the Northeast. I work with people in Michigan, Wisconsin, Washington state, Canada - wherever loons and anglers exist, this is an issue."

Pokras says despite laws that have restricted lead use in New England over the past decade or so, he hasn't seen the amount of lead in loons drop off very much. While it's estimated that lead poisoning accounts for about 30 percent of adult loon deaths in Maine, Pokras says when he looks at other states with better data, he thinks that's an underestimate.

"I think we're seeing the tip of the iceberg. In our adjacent state of New Hampshire, the number is 50 percent. Half the deaths of adult loons in New Hampshire is from fishing gear."

Maine currently bans the sale of lead sinkers that weigh up to a half ounce. The proposed bill - sponsored by Democratic Senator Anne Haskell - would expand the ban to both the sale and use of lead sinkers as well as lead jigs, and increases the size up to one ounce and two-and-a-half inches long.

The idea has support from Democrats and Republicans, as well as many conservation organizations. Susan Gallo is a wildlife biologist for Maine Audubon.

"The great thing about this bill is that it focuses on the specific sizes and specific types of tackle that we know is killing loons. It's killing more loons than natural causes like predators, other loons, illness, disease. And it's killing more loons than any other human causes like human disturbance, stress, or boat collisions."

But some Maine sportsmen are vehemently opposed to the bill - like Master Maine Guide Dave Barnes Sr. He says there's a major price difference between lead weights, which cost about 13 cents a piece, compared to replacements, which cost close to $3. The bill, he says, is anti-fishing.

"Is this what we're trying to do? Is take away the rights of every man, woman, and child in this state? Take it away and not let them hunt or fish anymore? This is what I feel. This is what I feel assaulting me every day."

Barnes wonders if there's no federal ban, then why should Maine have one? A number of organizations have repeatedly petitioned the EPA in recent years to ban all lead in ammunituion and tackle. The EPA has dismissed them all, saying there's insufficient evidence showing the ban is necessary to protect against the risk of injury to health or the environment. Gorham outdoorsman Robert Williamson says it doesn't make sense to impose a ban that will harm the economy.

"Ya know I'm on bass fishing forums on the internet all the time, and the people in the states close to Maine are not coming - they say they're not coming. Because of all the restrictions. They can go right to the next state and do whatever they want. There's no restrictions.''

Tufts associate professor Mark Pukras says consistent regulations are needed across New England states. He says Massachusetts has the most stringent standrards, and this bill would bring Maine in line with them. Nokomis High School sophomore Caleb Wursten says it's important to look at the history of lead.

"In my parents lifetime, we have taken lead out of paint, gasoline, and several other things. So why is it still in our water? Some may say that this is the government imposing a restriction, but this is a matter of conscience, and we should have been doing it all along."

Some sportsmen and businessmen ask that if the bill passes, at the very least, to phase it in to allow time for fishermen to comply.



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