If any of the following apply to you, then read on (the punch line is at the end):
- I am a fly fisherperson who has tied a fly with a wire rib.
- I once used/occasionally use/swear by weighted flies.
- I once used/occasionally use/swear by shot or other weights to get down deep where the big fish often hang out.
- I fish in Canada/Great Britian/USA, including states like Idaho, New Hampshire, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Vermont, Virginia, Wyoming, etc.
In The Science of Catch and Release, we summarized a scientific review on the things that really matter when fishing for sport and not for food. In To UV or Not to UV, we took a critical look at the idea of using UV materials to trick trout. Now, we’ll take a look at a topic that relates to both conservation and fly tying – lead fishing tackle. We’ll do this by using a Q&A to summarize the facts presented in a technical review on the subject from The Wildlife Society & American Fisheries Society:
So what’s the problem with lead?
- The toxic effects of lead on multiple organ systems in the human body have been widely recognized for many centuries.
- But it was relatively recent that we started to recognize toxic effects in wildlife.
- Concern first arose in relation to spent lead shot used for hunting waterfowl. References can be found in popular culture as early as the late 1800’s, long before leaded gas was around. But it wasn’t until the 1950’s that we see a scientific reference on the subject (Bellrose 1959).
- Eventually, mounting evidence prompted a phase out of lead shot for waterfowl hunting in the US (1996), followed shortly by Canada (1999).
- Now, we know that lead is potentially toxic to plants, aquatic invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and fish.
- In one study, adult brown trout and rainbow trout were fed invertebrates containing heavy metals (lead was one of them). While survivability was not significantly affected, weight reduction of 40% in brown trout and up to 50% in rainbows was seen (Woodward et al 1995).
- Rainbow trout fry didn’t fare as well, and neither did cutthroat trout. Their survivability was negatively affected by a heavy-metal diet (Farag 1999, Woodward 1994).
But what about lead from fishing tackle?
- Concern for lead toxicity from fishing tackle first arose in 1970’s Britian, where declining mute swan populations were linked directly to the use of lead fishing sinkers. In fact, lead toxicity from fishing tackle was the largest single cause of death, responsible for up to 90% of mortality (Simpson et al 1979). The population rebounded after lead sinkers were banned (Delaney et al 1992).
- A similar relationship was reported in North America a decade or two later, this time among the common loon in New England (Pokras & Chaffel 1992), where lead from fishing was responsible for about half of all deaths.
- The same happened in New York, where lead from fishing tackle was the second leading cause of death (Stone & Okoniewski 2001), and Canada, where loon habitat and sport fishing overlap (Scheuhammer et al 2003).
- There is now extensive literature documenting lead toxicosis from ingestion of sinkers, jigs, etc. among a multitude of waterfowl, birds of prey, and even turtles.
- However, there is no data to directly link lead from fishing tackle with fish mortality or toxicosis. The same goes for aquatic invertebrates and amphibians.
Is the tiny bit of lead on my fly fishing rig really worth worrying about?
- Tough to say, but it’s certainly not helping. And you and I aren’t the only ones fishing.
- The 2011 US Census data reported 33.1 million anglers in America (7 million fished specifically for trout).
- US anglers on average report losing 0.18 sinkers/hour, and 0.23 hooks and lures/hour (Duerr 1999).
- The amount of lead sinkers sold annually is estimated at 3,977 metric tons in the United States, 559 metric tons in Canada, and 2000-4000 metric tons in Britian (Scheuhammer et al 2003, ECEDG 2004).
Are there regulations on lead fishing tackle?
- The treat is substantial enough that countries including Denmark, Canada, Great Britian, and the United States have applied at least some restrictions on the sale and use of lead fishing tackle.
- Regulations on lead fishing tackle exist in many states. The list includes Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York.
- Lead tackle is banned altogether on many federal lands, including Red Rock Lakes NWR Montana, the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, Bear Lake NWR in Idaho, Seney NWR in Michigan, Union Slough NWR in Iowa, Rachek Carson NWR in Maine, Assabet River NWR in Massachusetts, and Rappahannock River Valley NWR in Virginia.
I’m good if I use those substitutes they sell in place of lead, right?
- Ha, ha! Fooled you! Some lead substitues available on the market aren’t exactly lead free, while others contain metals that may be even worse. That’s the punchline.
- ZINC, commonly used in lead substitute wire and foil, is actually MORE TOXIC THAN LEAD in the aquatic environment (Grandy et al 1968, Zdziarski et al 1994, levengood et al 1999).
- Brass is widely available, and probably safe. It should be noted that brass is sometimes mixed with lead, though the lead is bound and may therefore not be toxic (MOEA 2006).
- Tungsten, though quite a bit more expensive, is likely the best bet. Now widely available, its density is comparable to lead, but without the toxicity.
Taken alone, the one nymph wrapped with lead wire that gets gobbled by a tree, or the two lead shot you loose to a gnarly bottom snag might not make a difference. But it certainly doesn’t help. Especially when combined with all the lead tackle left by all the anglers out there. I’d like to have nice places to go fishing, and fat happy trout to catch when I get there. So I’ll do what I can and avoid using lead products. There’s perfectly good substitutes out there, as long as I double check that they don’t have hidden lead or zinc in them. I’ll be a happier fisherman by doing so. Hopefully at least some of the information in this article is new to you, and helps you enjoy your fishing, too.
A detailed reference list can be found in Sources and Implications of Lead Ammunition and Fishing Tackle on Natural Resources. The Wildlife Society & American Fisheries Society Technical Review 08-01. June 2008..
US Census data can be found at https://www.census.gov/prod/2012pubs/fhw11-qkfact.pdf