The Sportsman’s Corner: Getting the lead out

Published: 9/23/2022 11:39:41 AM
Modified: 9/23/2022 11:39:03 AM

On Thursday, Sept. 15, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) released a final ruling announcing the prohibition of lead fishing tackle on certain National Wildlife Refuges that are being opened to fishing. This action was met with considerable resistance from a number of groups, including the American Sportfishing Association.

The group issued the following statement from Vice President of Government Affairs Mike Leonard. “It is deeply disappointing that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) ignored science and the concerns of the sport fishing industry. USFWS is charged with ensuring fish and wildlife resource management is rooted in the best available data and science. This proposed rule runs counter to that charge and sets a dangerous precedent for future unwarranted bans on fishing tackle. Although USFWS states that this decision is based on concerns that lead ammunition and tackle have negative impacts on the health and well-being of both humans and wildlife, USFWS provided zero evidence of lead fishing tackle causing any negative impacts in these refuges.

“As we have previously said, ASA and the entire sportfishing community fully support science-based conservation initiatives. Our industry has long made sacrifices for the betterment of the environment and wildlife. While anglers should have the choice of whether they want to use alternatives, it is important to recognize that non-lead tackle may be more expensive and perform worse.

“We hope that USFWS realizes the error they made in this rule and reconsiders its implementation. Anglers should be able to keep using traditional fishing tackle as they have for generations.”

This opposition comes from the sport fishing industry’s trade association and thus should be no surprise. They note that there are 55 million fishermen in the United States, and they impact the nation’s economy by over $125 billion and employ 825,000 people.

The issue of lead in the environment is not new. When the writer was first appointed to the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife Board in 1986, lead shot for waterfowl hunting was a very controversial issue. There was growing evidence of a serious problem with waterfowl dying after ingesting lead shot. Massachusetts had the nation’s oldest water-fowling tradition with the coastal marshes of the northeastern part of Massachusetts having been gunning for ducks and geese since colonial times. There were many in the water-fowling community who were not interested in changing from lead shot to the nontoxic alternative, steel shot. The steel shot was much harder and was a threat to the tight-choked firearms preferred by water-fowlers. They were not at all impressed with steel shot, which required more open chokes in shotgun barrels and had a significantly shorter effective range due to the fact that steel was lighter and thus lost energy quicker. Steel shot did require using more open chokes and larger shot sizes.

Despite the opposition, Massachusetts was one of the first states to ban lead shot. It was clear that the federal government, seeing the same waterfowl mortality data, was moving to ban lead as well and the first ban on federal refuges in 1986 was followed by a complete ban in 1991. Over time, the shotshell industry has made advancements in shot and components and at the present time, nontoxic loads have been developed that perform as well, if not better, than lead and the mortality of waterfowl, who ingest lead while feeding and picking up “grit” from the bottom to aid in digestion in the gizzard, is no longer a problem.

Since that time, lead contamination has been an ongoing concern as various studies have shown evidence of the negative effects of lead in the environment. A Massachusetts lawsuit in the 1990s suggested eagles in the Quabbin were being threatened by lead from the controlled deer hunt. It was dismissed. Other studies were proven to show that loons are suffering from ingesting lead fishing tackle and Massachusetts as a result banned lead fishing weights in an effort to protect loons. Lead contamination at shooting ranges is also an issue that has needed to be addressed at shooting facilities across the country.

The lead controversy is not going away. Bans of all lead for hunting have been suggested in venues across the country and are part of a national debate. To this writer, all these measures need to be examined closely. “Scientific” studies need to be studied as data can be manipulated. Studies need to be “peer reviewed.” That means that a group of independent professionals with experience and no “ax to grind” look at the study and determine if the findings are valid. From my perspective, if a clear and proven threat exists, appropriate actions should take. However, if the findings are part of a political agenda and unfounded in legitimate science, they should be dismissed.

It is important for me to mention that in 1988, yours truly took a leave of absence from his teaching job and went to work for Ducks Unlimited, Inc. as the regional director for Massachusetts. In the four years spent on that job, in the period immediately during and after the lead shot ban, I was able to learn first-hand how conservation can adapt to changes and still work effectively for the betterment of the resource without eliminating responsible consumptive uses of wildlife.

Next week, the upland season in the Northeast gets under way in earnest. The Silverado is ready to go, and it is certainly good to see gas prices dropping. That will be appreciated on the five-hour, 275-mile drive to Tim Pond Camps next week.

Mike Roche is a retired teacher who has been involved in conservation and wildlife issues his entire life. He has written the Sportsman’s Corner since 1984 and has served as advisor to the Mahar Fish’N Game Club, Counselor and Director of the Massachusetts Conservation Camp, former Connecticut Valley District representative on the Massachusetts Fisheries and Wildlife Board, has been a Massachusetts Hunter Education Instructor and is a licensed New York hunting guide. He can be reached at

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