Longstanding efforts to convince Minnesota anglers to get the lead out of their fishing tackle will get a big financial boost starting this year thanks to the BP Gulf oil spill of a decade ago.
Minnesota loon lovers, like now-retired Department of Natural Resources non-game expert Carrol Henderson, have for years pushed to get a share of the massive fines and damages BP paid for the environmental harm caused by the oil spill.
As part of the BP legal settlement, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded Minnesota agencies more than $6 million for loon conservation efforts, in large part because most loons that spend their summers in Minnesota spend their winters in the Gulf of Mexico near where the oil spill occured. Research since the spill has discovered contaminants in the loons and loon eggs from chemicals used in the oil spill cleanup.
About $1.2 million of that settlement money will be designated over the next three years for the "Get the Lead Out" program run by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to raise awareness of the issue and suggest, even give away, non-toxic alternatives to lead tackle.
Some state officials have for years been trying to push non-lead alternatives for lead tackle — especially small sinkers and jigs — because loons and other water birds accidentally find them on lake bottoms and ingest them, mistaking them for grit needed to digest their food.
Lead is highly toxic to loons, just like it is to humans and other animals, and the PCA estimates about 15% of confirmed loon deaths are from lead poisoning.
Minnesota state agencies have been pusing non-toxic tackle since 1999. The News Tribune wrote about dying loons and non-toxic tackle alternatives in a special report in 2002, highlighting nontoxic alternatives like tungsten and tin. Based on those reports, then-state Sen. Yvonne Prettner-Solon in 2003 introduced legislation that would ban the smallest lead sinkers and jigs. That legislation failed to pass; however, under heavy lobbying efforts by Minnesota-based fishing tackle manufacturers such as Water Gremlin.
There has been some controversy surrounding the latest "Get the Lead Out" funding over the winter after transfer of the money to the PCA was held up by state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, chair of the Minnesota Senate’s Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee. But Ingebrigtsen has since said he expects to hold a hearing on the issue soon and that the PCA funding to be approved quickly in the 2020 session that started Tuesday.
Minnesota hosts about 12,000 loons each summer, the most of any state outside Alaska. There is no indication lead is causing a major population decline, but supporters of the move to non-toxic tackle say it will end needless loon suffering and death at very little cost to anglers.
The PCA webpage www.pca.state.mn.us/living-green/nontoxic-tackle-lets-get-lead-out lists 38 companies that produce and/or sell non-toxic fishing tackle.