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Getting The Lead Out

Getting The Lead OutAfter showing that lead sinkers are poisoning the country's loon population, research by Tufts' Mark Pokras has helped states convince fisherman to change their tackle.

No. Grafton, Mass. [05.30.02] Produced by the millions every year, lead sinkers and lead weighted fishing hooks are commonly found in the tackle boxes of fishermen across the country. Unfortunately, they can also be found with increasing regularity in the stomachs of dead loons -- one of the oldest groups of birds in the world. After revealing the lead fishing tackle is poisoning hundreds -- if not thousands -- of the endangered birds, research by Tufts' Mark Pokras is leading many states to find ways to convince fishermen to "get the lead out."

"Scientists at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in Massachusetts have examined hundreds of dead adult loons from fresh water over the past decade, and they determined that more than half died from lead poisoning from the ingestion of lead fishing gear," reported the Associated Press.

It doesn't take much, Pokras says, to kill the birds. One sinker has enough lead to kill a loon.

According to his research, the lead weights may be the single biggest killer of the birds.

"Pokras' continuing research, with nearly 700 loons studied, shows that about 54 percent are dying from lead poisoning in her region," reported the Associated Press. "In some areas of heavy fishing pressure, 84 percent of adult loons are dying from lead. Across the loon's range in the northern United States and Canada, Pokras said, other studies show the number is consistently 25 percent or higher."

The poison can cause a wide variety of physical and behavioral problems, including tremors, loss of balance and even an impaired ability to fly.

"The weakened bird is more vulnerable to predators and may have trouble feeding, nesting and caring for its young," reported the international news service. "It becomes emaciated, and it often dies within three weeks after eating lead."

The problem is extremely clear-cut, says the Tufts researcher and director of the University's Wildlife Clinic.

"Most environmental problems are complicated, but this one is simple," Pokras said. "If a loon eats lead, it dies. The solution is simple, too. Use another material other than lead. Yet we still haven't fixed the problem."

While a few states -- including New Hampshire and Maine -- have banned the lead tackle after learning of its deadly effects, most have not.

"I'm a bit disappointed and a bit amazed at the lack of action," Pokras said in the Associated Press report.

But several states and a few countries are now looking at strategies to reduce the usage of lead fishing weights.

Minnesota has started a campaign to replace lead sinkers with more environmentally-friendly tackle, while Vermont, and even New Zealand, are considering bans.

Sally Stockwell -- a staff member of the Maine Audubon Society -- says Pokras' work has had a major impact in Maine, which banned the gear in January of 2002.

"Because of the work he's done, we've been able to spread the word to fishing groups," she told the Portland Press Herald. "They're always astounded to see the damage."

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