Bob Boese, Louisiana

February 9th, 2009

Lead Sinkers and the Environment
By Bob Boese, Louisiana

Boudreaux's mother-in-law, Bertha, lives in Pensacola and is five by five. She wanted to come visit and told Boudreaux to get her a plane ticket, but get two seats because she didn't fit in one.

"That will cost twice as much," Boudreaux said.

"Do it!" Bertha demanded.

As she was boarding the plane the stewardess said: "You don't need two tickets, Mam."

"Oh, yes I do," Bertha insisted, "both seats are for me because I don't fit in one."

"But," the stewardess answered, "one of these seats is row six and the other is on fourteen."

Here is a weighty question: does your lead fly weight hurt the environment?

While wrapping lead wire around the hook shank of a soon-to-be nymph, I recalled an article in my considerable stack of old fly fishing magazines. This article discussed the hot topic argument over lead sinkers and the environment. The article (August 1995 Fly Fisherman) noted that the EPA made splashy headlines in 1994-5 with the release of data that claimed thousands of tons of lead sinkers (about 500 million units) were manufactured each year in the United States and released into the environment. Huh? Yep, EPA assumed the sinkers were all released into the environment. The agency stated that lead sinkers, especially small split shot, would be mistaken for gravel that birds swallow as grit to help them grind up and digest food, and waterbirds, especially deep-diving birds such as loons, would also swallow sinkers when eating fish who had escaped being caught but still had attached lead fishing tackle. Okay, I know it sounds preposterous, but this EPA document followed on the heels of the 1991 ban on lead shot and subsequent Fish & Wildlife Service surveys that found a significant reduction in lead poisoning in birds after the lead shot ban. In contrast, the lead sinker scare was based on a 1992 study from Tufts University regarding loon mortality in the northeast.

So what happened to the proposed national lead sinker ban between 1995 and today?

First, consider that the 1992 Tufts study had limited data and geographic restrictions. Then understand that a 1999 study by the Fish & Wildlife Service found the Tufts' data "insufficient to evaluate" lead sinkers as being a cause of bird mortality. Next realize that a single shell of banned lead bird shot contains about 300 pellets that are never retrieved, while lead sinkers on fly equipment are rarely lost. All of a sudden this begins to sound more anti-fishing Peta-ish than logical. Nevertheless, several New England states have enacted versions of lead sinker/jig bans, and the Defenders of Wildlife has even posted a cut-and-paste version of ban legislation for other states to use []. These states justified their legislation on the mortality of loons due to lead poisoning, claiming that lead sinkers account for 30-50 %of adult loon deaths. Okay, so what happened to the national lead sinker ban?

Simply stated, the impact of lead fishing tackle has not been documented or even well studied. Some claims suggest that as much as 3,000 tons (yes, that's six million pounds) of lead per year is lost in the waterways of the U.S. and Canada in the form of sinkers. Essentially, the argument goes, sinker manufacturers make that many pounds of sinkers each year so fishermen must be purchasing them to replace lost sinkers. Now if this were true it would mean that lead sinkers contribute a number not that far below what was supposedly contributed by lead shot.

Lost lead sinkers…but…wait.…there are no reported cases of large-scale fish die-offs due to lead sinkers. Why not? Most likely because it never happens. It seems that lead does not bioaccumulate in the food chains of freshwater aquatic vertebrates — i.e., you don't find progressively greater amounts of lead as you move up the predator hierarchy due to big fish eating little fish. Such concentration of lead as there is in fish seems to be more a function of lead discharges into waterways than from sinkers, and what lead there is in fish concentrates in hard tissues such as bone and teeth which pass through rather than being absorbed by predators. Big fish don't get lead poisoning from little fish and birds don't either. Nevertheless, the arguments continue that lead is harmful to an enormous variety of wildlife, and lead fishing sinkers and other lead tackle contribute significantly to the risk.

While you can still buy lead sinkers practically anywhere other than New England, fly sinkers are now commonly made from an array of alternative materials including tin, copper, bismuth, steel, brass, tungsten, and ceramic. The cost for this political correctness is: (1) four to thirty times as much expense for tin or tungsten compared to lead and (2) brittle split shot that can't be reopened without splitting. Consider also that you want your terminal fly tackle to be as unobtrusive as possible. The smaller the size of the weight, the better. But atomic weight of lead is 207.2 while tungsten is 183.85 and tin is 118.71. That means that your tin weight must be almost twice as large as your lead weight. Tungsten is only 12% larger but many times more expensive — if you can find them.

Will there be a national ban on sinkers? Hopefully not. Will lead sinkers and wire become unavailable to the public. Who knows? Some laws are like a drive-by shooting, you're not involved but you get hurt anyway. ~ Bob

About Bob:

Robert Lamar Boese has fly fished for five decades. He is an environmental negotiator, attorney and educator who has provided environmental legal services for more than thirty-three years including active duty with the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Justice. He is a well known fly tyer with several unique patterns to his credit. He has developed and authored federal and state regulatory programs encompassing a broad spectrum of environmental disciplines, has litigated environmental matters at all levels of the federal and state court systems, and is a qualified expert for testimony in environmental law. He has authored over 60 published text chapters, comments or articles on environmental matters, is a member of the Colorado, District of Columbia and Louisiana Bar Associations, and is a certified mediator. In addition to his legal practice, Mr. Boese has been a high school teacher, an associate professor of Environmental Law and Public Health, has authored numerous fiction and sports publications, and is a softball coach and nationally certified volleyball referee. He is the president of the Acadiana Fly Rodders in Lafayette, Louisiana and editor of Acadiana on the Fly. He has been married for thirty years and is the father of two fly fishing girls (25 and 21). For additional information contact: Boese Environmental Law, 103 Riviera Court, Broussard, LA 70518 or call 337.856.7890 or email

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