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Late summer over the Patoka River near the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), Indiana, USA. Photo by Brent Waltermire

Why is the American Sportfishing Association still defending lead weights?

By Tom Bie

On Sept. 15, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) published its final rule on “2022-2023 Station-Specific Hunting and Sport Fishing,” outlining planned changes at eighteen national wildlife refuges in thirteen states. Later that day, the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) shared how “deeply disappointed” it was in USFWS’s “final rule announcing the prohibition of lead fishing tackle on certain National Wildlife Refuges that are being opened to fishing.” Why the disappointment?

The first problem with ASA’s assertion is that it’s false. None of the eighteen National Wildlife Refuges included in USFWS’s final rule are “being opened to fishing.” Of the 567 National Wildlife Refuges in the US, this rule affects tackle on two of them, both of which were already open to fishing: Patoka River, in Indiana; and Erie, in Pennsylvania. The new rule simply expands fishing opportunities within those refuges, adding four miles of bank access along Dead and Muddy creeks at Erie, and seventy-four acres of access at Patoka River, some of which includes creeks and ponds.

In the fall of 1993, then-President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12866, requiring all Federal regulatory agencies to publish a list of anticipated rulemaking actions for the upcoming twelve-month period. The USFWS is such an agency, and its rulemaking process requires four steps: Publishing a proposed rule in the Federal Register; Inviting public comment; Considering the public comments received, and publishing a final rule in the Federal Register.

USFWS made draft reviews of both plans open to public comment for more than two months, but the ASA never sent one in. Instead, the group posted three public statements of opposition on its website. All three failed to mention that the proposed rule won’t take effect for another four years. Until the fall of 2026, it’s voluntary.

This reliance on dubious messaging to its audience is part of what makes the association’s stance in this matter all the more troubling. Its statement on June 9 read in part: “… the proposed rule would arbitrarily ban lead fishing tackle in several refuges based on unfounded and overgeneralized assumptions.”

Perhaps the ASA has its own definition of “arbitrarily.” From page eight of USFWS’s rule: “The best available science, analyzed as part of this proposed rulemaking, indicates that lead ammunition and tackle may have negative impacts on both wildlife and human health.”

Arbitrarily generally means “without cause,” and the USFWS has plenty of cause for implementing a ban on lead, with no shortage of available science to back its position. An abundance of research on the dangers of lead poisoning has been compiled over the years by some of the nation’s most highly respected institutions. A 2019 study published in the National Library of Medicine found that more than thirty bird species have ingested lead fishing tackle. Findings from a 2017 study at Oklahoma State University titled “Impacts of Lead Ammunition and Sinkers on Wildlife” concluded that nearly 4,000 tons of lead sinkers are purchased in the US each year; that up to one hundred lead sinkers per square yard exist along heavily fished shorelines; and that ninety percent of the mortality of a swan population in Britain was due to lead poisoning from tackle.

Tufts University in Massachusetts has been studying the effects of lead poisoning in wildlife for more than three decades, and their research has shown that, in the US, more than fifty percent of loons, twenty-five percent of bald eagles, and more than thirty percent of swans die from lead poisoning. Many of the loon and eagle deaths occurred after the birds ate a fish that had also died from ingesting lead.

And, of course, lead is also highly toxic to humans. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, in thirty-eight cases reported to US poison-control centers in 2016, the item ingested was specifically recorded as “lead fishing tackle.” Twenty-eight of these cases involved children under six. According to the report: “It is highly likely that the poison-control center numbers underestimate the total number of children exposed to lead via this route.”

The ASA stated: “This proposal provides no evidence that lead fishing tackle is harming any specific wildlife populations in the proposed areas.” This is true; it does not. Because fishing has never been allowed in the proposed areas, no evidence could have been provided. It’s like arguing to build a new road without stop signs or speed limits because “there’s no evidence that anyone has ever crashed on it.”

The Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Marek Uliasz

ASA’s position could be seen simply as a trade association looking out for the manufacturers it represents. But most major manufacturers of lead weights, including South Bend, Water Gremlin, and Eagle Claw—all of which count Walmart among their retailers—already make non-lead weights. Berkley began making its Gulp jig heads out of a lead-free composite more than a decade ago.

ASA’s view also discounts the larger benefits of increasing angling opportunities overall. Where the USFWS final rule adds new waters to fish—like at Erie NWR—the association is decrying the agency for banning a use that never existed in the first place.

“The entire foundation of USFWS should be based on data and science,” reads a line from ASA’s June statement. I agree, but it also needs to be based on the law, and the Act that grants the Department of Interior its statutory authority over refuges is guided by the doctrine of compatibility, which permits only those uses on a refuge that are “compatible with the purposes of the refuge and Refuge System mission.”

Some may wonder why a National Wildlife “Refuge” allows hunting or fishing at all. Here’s why: One of USFWS’s mandates is to “maintain the environmental health of the Refuge System for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.” Simply put, certain species—deer or elk, for example—can outgrow or out-mow the habitat provided. Thus, limited, tightly regulated hunting results in a healthier population overall. As for fishing, some of our country’s finest trout water just happens to flow through a refuge—like Flat Creek on Wyoming’s National Elk Refuge just north of Jackson. Restrictive seasons and other regulations protect these populations accordingly.

“Anglers should have the option of choosing non-lead tackle alternatives,” writes the ASA, “but it is important to recognize that these alternatives generally come with the tradeoff of higher cost or poorer performance.” This is true of the alternatives, but I ask the American Sportfishing Association: What is the “tradeoff” of a dozen dead birds for a few hundred sinkers sold? Which is the “higher cost”: anglers using existing alternatives to lead (steel, tin, tungsten, bismuth, brass) or a child getting lead poisoning after swallowing some split shot?

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Tom Bie is the founder, editor, and publisher of The Drake. He started the magazine in 1998 as an annual newsprint publication based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He then moved it to Steamboat, Colorado (1999), Boulder, Colorado (2001), and San Clemente, California (2004), as he took jobs as managing editor at Paddler, Senior Editor at Skiing, and Editor-in-Chief at Powder, respectively. Tom and The Drake are now both based in Denver, Colorado, where The Drake is finally all grows up(Swingers, 1996) to a quarterly magazine.

2 Comments

  1. Lead exposure for waterfowl is real as heavily used estuaries with waterfowl hunting can leave enough lead shot to be ingested in quantity. No one has ever found that use of lead weights in fishing occurs in enough quantity in general areas with enough loss to affect anyone. No child is going to get lead poison from ingesting a fishing split shot. That is simply a non scientific call to emotions.
    Lead bird shot, lead in paint and coatings in homes, lead in water pipes all have science based reasons for being a real risk.
    Lead fly fishing split shot is not a risk unto itself. It simply exists in too small an amount.
    Beyond the science, there is a practical argument that banning lead in sporting use means less lead mining overall and lead mining does have significant regional risks.

    • Thanks for the comment. On this point: “No one has ever found that use of lead weights in fishing occurs in enough quantity in general areas with enough loss to affect anyone. No child is going to get lead poison from ingesting a fishing split shot. That is simply a non scientific call to emotions.”

      This report from August 2021 was published in the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology, and Nutrition. It details a 5-year-old-boy taken to the emergency room where he was documented with “an acute rise in lead level due to ingestion of a lead fishing weight” roughly the size of a #2 split shot. He was operated on immediately, and the weight was removed. From the report: “In our patient, the lead weight was in his stomach for only 5–6 hours prior to its removal, but his lead level was over 12 times the upper limit of normal.” Lead is not broken down by the body; it stays toxic. Lead in a child’s body can cause serious long-term health problems.
      https://oce.ovid.com/article/02196183-202108000-00011?relatedarticle=y

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