Lead-free program for MN loons gets green light

A loon floats just above the water.
A common loon floats on Lake Minnetonka in June 2019. A Senate committee has cleared the way for Minnesota to receive federal funding to help the state's loons.
Evan Frost | MPR News

A Senate committee has cleared the way for Minnesota to receive federal funding to help the state's loons.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service awarded the state more than $6 million from a settlement with BP over the company’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The spill dumped more than 200 million gallons of oil in the Gulf of Mexico, where many of Minnesota's loons migrate in the winter.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency received about $1.2 million for a program to encourage anglers to use lead-free fishing tackle.

State Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, had delayed the funding by requesting more information on the lead-free program. The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Finance Committee, which Ingebrigtsen chairs, held a hearing on the program earlier this week. The committee then allowed the funding to move forward.

Grow the Future of Public Media

MPR News is supported by Members. Gifts from individuals power everything you find here. Make a gift of any amount today to become a Member!

Kevin McDonald, a supervisor with the state Pollution Control Agency, called the delay “disappointing,” but said the program should be ready to launch by the fishing opener in May.

"So many Minnesotans care very deeply about the environment, about water quality, about loons, that we already know that they're strongly in support of this effort,” McDonald said. “They just need a little bit of help to make that transition away from lead fishing tackle."

Lead poisoning is a leading cause of mortality among loons and other waterfowl. It’s estimated that 11 to 12 percent of Minnesota’s loon deaths are caused by lead, said Carrol Henderson, a retired nongame wildlife supervisor for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, during Monday’s committee hearing.

"At least 100 to 200 loons per year are dying from lead poisoning when they pick up lead jigs or sinkers on lake bottoms,” Henderson said. “The size of the pebbles they pick up and grind up with their fish are about the same size as the jigs and sinkers they're picking up on the bottom."

Non-toxic jigs and sinkers made from tin, bismuth, steel or tungsten are available, but can be difficult to find in stores.

The MPCA plans to organize lead tackle exchanges, partner with lake associations and science teachers to educate anglers and help local retailers find lead-free alternatives, McDonald said.

Past efforts to ban lead fishing tackle and ammunition at the state Legislature have been unsuccessful.

During the hearing, state Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, said angler education is important, because the market for lead-free alternatives isn’t fully developed. She described going to a bait shop and finding 24 lead sinkers for $1.50, while four lead-free sinkers cost $8.

“The time now is to educate about lead, so our future fishermen and our fishermen of today can understand lead in the environment,” Ruud said. “We can push the market to make tackle that doesn’t contain lead that’s affordable.”