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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New England Loons: Poisoned from Lead

Air Date: Week of

New England's loon are dying from swallowing fishing line sinkers made from the metal lead. Commentator Robert Braile ponders the demise of these birds in the broader context of simple problem solving. Commentator Robert Braile writes on environmental issues for the Boston Globe.


CURWOOD: The loons of New England are dying. The cause of death: lead poisoning. The elegant birds with the ethereal call are swallowing lead fishing sinkers, mistaking them for the pebbles they need to digest food. Commentator Robert Braile says the number of birds poisoned each year is a tragedy. But he says the failure to save loons raises a bigger and more troubling question.

BRAILE: Loons are cherished in northern New England. The graceful birds slice through cool mountain lakes from the first whisper of spring to the first blush of autumn. They mark the seasons with the same primordial constancy they did for Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn in On Golden Pond, a film shot on New Hampshire's Squam Lake.

Loons occupy the New England imagination. It is ironic, then, that a bird so cherished is so imperiled and by a threat so frivolous. Lead fishing sinkers and jigs are killing loons, and the efforts to get rid of the weights have fallen short. Bills to ban them have languished for years in Maine and New York. All Vermont has done is ask anglers to use safer weights. New Hampshire did enact America's first ban this year, but it doesn't take effect until the year 2000, it covers only some weights, and it bans their use, not sale, making it easy for anglers to keep using them by accident or intent.

Even the US Fish and Wildlife Service is dallying. In 1992, environmentalists petitioned the Agency to ban lead weights in America's national wildlife refuges and parks, hoping to save loons and trumpeter swans, which are also in danger. The Agency said in 1995 that it would. It never has.

Critics say such bans would be unenforceable and that anglers should be educated rather than regulated. They say bans would hurt retailers and that the science of lead toxicity is unclear. Yet bans would be no more or less enforceable than many other laws we abide by every day. Removing a 39-cent item from the shelves of bait and tackle shops won't bankrupt anyone. And America decided decades ago about the toxicity of lead, banning the metal in paint and gasoline.

American environmentalism seems mired these days. Maybe its because problems like climate change, ozone depletion, and desertification seem too large and complex to resolve. But this is not climate change. Banning lead fishing weights to save loons is doable. So doable it begs the question: if we cannot solve this environmental problem, what environmental problem can we solve?

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Commentator Robert Braile writes on environmental issues for the Boston Globe.



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