Swan deaths spur effort to ban lead tackle

This photo by Vadnais Heights photographer Deborah Hartmann shows a young trumpeter swan that has succumbed to lead toxicity at Sucker Lake. 

The symptoms aren’t difficult to see when you know what to look for: the tremors, drooping head, clumsy sluggishness and eventual death. The slow effects of lead poisoning on the swans at Sucker Lake in Vadnais Heights are a serious reminder of why the toxic metal has been banned in paints and pipes for decades. But there’s one place you’re still likely to find lead in Minnesota—your tackle box. 

A bill introduced in the state Legislature this January is proposing to restrict the sale of lead tackle in Minnesota in the hope of reducing the accumulation of lead in local lakes. 

A similar bill was introduced in early 2020 but was put on the back burner when the Legislature was occupied with a rush of bills at the onset of the pandemic. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Chuck Wiger in the Senate, and Rep. Peter Fischer in the House. 

Sharp-eyed citizens and staff from the Vadnais Lake Area Watershed Management Organization (VLAWMO) have noted five dead swans in Sucker Lake in this winter. Not all of the dead swans were recovered, but three were tested at the University of Minnesota’s Veterinary Diagnostic Lab. All of them tested positive for lead poisoning.  

Swan deaths from lead ingestion are a yearly occurrence at Sucker Lake. Locals have counted 22 dead swans in the last three years. The number of poisoned swans may seem small compared to the flocks of thousands that live in Minnesota, but Dawn Tanner, program development coordinator at VLAWMO, explained that cases of lead poisoning are underreported because of the dangerous conditions for bird recovery. If caught in time, swans can be treated with the help of rehabilitators such as the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville. But since swans are one of the largest birds species in North America and tend to prefer to spend time on open water at the edges of thin ice, capturing an ailing swan for treatment is no easy task. 

The effects of lead in the environment are a concern for the hunting world as well; tiny lead fragments from ammunition are found in the meat and organs of game animals. 

“The more we look for lead in the environment, the more we find it,” Tanner said. “This is a small example of much larger problem.”  

While many waterfowl are affected by lead in the lakes, the swans at Sucker Lake are especially noticeable because they happen to congregate in preferred fishing spots during the winter months, where the water is open, and where there also happens to be a lot of lost tackle. Like chickens, swans and loons swallow stones to aid in digestion, and fishing sinkers are the perfect size for their gizzard. The bills would ban the sale of lead sinkers and jigs an ounce or smaller, and under the length of 2.5 inches, giving retailers until the year 2024 to make the full switch. 

Rep. Peter Fischer, who authored the House bill, said he wasn’t aware that Minnesota had no restrictions on lead tackle until he came across a presentation by Girl Scout Troop 56087 at a University of Minnesota water resources conference. The troop from White Bear Lake has stayed involved with the effort to pass legislation regulating the use of lead tackle, even testifying at legislative hearings. 

Youth involvement has been a large part of the initiative to encourage anglers to make the switch to non-lead tackle. Kelly Amoth is an educator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency’s Get the Lead Out program. She works to educate communities across the state about lead alternatives, taking special care to visit schools and summer camps. 

“We really want to reach youth and start them on the right path as lifelong anglers in Minnesota,” she said. 

Amoth estimated that 25 percent of loons die from the ingestion of lead-based tackle. 

One study from 2006 surveyed anglers leaving five popular walleye lakes, finding that nearly a metric ton of sinkers had been lost in the depths over the course of a single summer. Lead sitting at the bottom of the lake does not degrade over time, which presents a cumulative risk not only to wildlife, but to human health, Amoth said. 

There are a few challenges in encouraging anglers to adopt this change. Anglers tend to prefer lead sinkers to metal alternatives because they often perform better, responding more sensitively when there’s a bite on the line. However, tungsten sinkers are already popular among ice fishers. This alternative is considered even more fine-tuned than lead, but also more costly. Amoth encourages anglers to look at it as a long-term investment in higher-quality gear. 

Get the Lead Out (www.pca.state.mn.us/living-green/nontoxic-tackle-get-lead-out) has compiled a list of manufacturers that make lead-free tackle, many of them local to Minnesota. While Amoth wants anglers to get lead items out of their tackle boxes, she also wants to be clear that they should not go into the garbage. Lead is a toxic material that should be disposed of at hazardous waste sites. Part of Get the Lead Out’s initiative includes tackle exchanges that offer lead-free alternatives and collect lead items for proper disposal. 

The authors of HF157 and SF247, the companion House and Senate bills, are still hammering out the exact details regarding size restrictions on lead tackle, but it’s close to final, Fischer said. The bill is expected to be included in an omnibus House policy bill from the Environment and Natural Resources Policy Committee. 

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