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Editorial: A sensible measure to protect the loons

In terms of iconic images, Vermont can claim the cow, Maine the lobster, and that’s fine, because New Hampshire has the loon – a beautiful water bird with reclusive habits, a haunting call and striking black-and-white plumage. Unfortunately, our heavy use of the lakes and ponds these birds inhabit is the leading threat to their well-being.

That’s why the state Senate unanimously passed legislation that will further restrict the use of lead fishing tackle that is toxic to loons, as well as other fish-feeders such as bald eagles and great blue herons. It’s also why the House, which will consider the bill next, should pass it, too.

New Hampshire placed restrictions on lead fishing tackle in 2000, becoming the first state to do so. The law was toughened in 2005 and 2006, ultimately forbidding the sale or freshwater use of lead sinkers weighing less than an ounce and lead jigs less than an inch in length.

The new legislation, Senate Bill 89, would restrict jigs, like sinkers, by weight, forbidding jigs of an ounce or less. It wouldn’t take effect until 2015, allowing bait shops to sell their existing inventory.

Opponents – primarily makers of lead tackle, bait shop operators and anglers, including the New Hampshire Bass Federation – say non-toxic alternatives, notably tungsten jigs, are harder to find and more expensive. Because the loon population has increased, they question the need for further legislation.

Their basic math is right. In 2005, the Loon Preservation Committee estimated that the state’s population of paired loon adults was about 400; today, that figure stands at about 560.

But supporters of the bill argue persuasively that the loon population is not yet self-sustaining – and that a loophole in the current law is a big reason why. One type of lead tackle – the weighted hooks called jigs – remains the leading documented cause of death for adult loons.

Bass fishermen commonly use jigs to drop their lines through thick weeds on the water’s surface to reach fish that are feeding below. When warm water drives the fish deep, jigs carry lines down to reach them.

With jigs, it is weight, not length, that matters, and that’s why the current law is ineffective. The jigs freshwater anglers rely on in New Hampshire are less than an inch long, and so are largely exempted. And the fish that get away sometimes carry the jigs with them; when loons eat these fish, they are ingesting a fatal meal.

Since 2000, 52 percent of documented loon deaths in the state were caused by lead jigs. The highest mortality – 11 loons – came in 2010, long after the current law was enacted.

This may not seem a large number. But loons don’t breed until they are about 6 years old, and they produce on average only one surviving chick every two years. So mortality at the level caused by lead tackle is a threat to their population.

It is not the only threat, to be sure. Shoreland development reduces nesting opportunities; insensitive admirers in powerboats, kayaks and canoes are a source of stress. Each year volunteers spend thousands of hours trying to offset the damage by building nesting rafts as well as encouraging better human habits through education.

We are at odds with ourselves, in working so hard to protect loons with one hand while poisoning them – albeit accidentally – with the other. We owe it to these vulnerable birds, emblematic of our state, to work with both hands, together.

Legacy Comments3

Theres a few loons that need banning on the comments section of this paper.... :)

Hunter_Dan, Loon do not require "cabin free shorelines" quiet coves work very nicely, and with all the help from the Loon-Preservation committee and the floating rafts. Loon nest a few yards from cabins and then happily parade their young feet from shores of cabins daily. I have watched loons have raised offspring for years in the company of people. Mandating on more shoreline development would most likely turn many people off to making small changes that would help protect our loon. This bill to stop the use of lead, will save more loons lives and have more supporters Than banning construction.

If we really want to protect loons, we should pass a law that says, from this day forth, there will be no more shoreline development on any NH waterbodies. Loons nest on shorelines and rely on cabin-free shorelines to lay their eggs. That would do more good for loons that this current bill would.

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