Capitol Alert

California’s toxics regulator eyes lead fishing weights

California fishermen might need to swap out the content of their tackle boxes, depending on the progress of a proposed state regulation targeting what are considered chemically hazardous weights and sinkers.

Fishing tackle has landed on a list of potentially perilous product categories released by California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control. In compiling the list, the state agency has launched what will likely be a years-long process that could lead to certain products being labeled, restricted, or banned outright.

Lead products that anglers cast into lakes and streams are particularly harmful to wildlife, according to a department draft document estimating that “hundreds of tons” of fishing products end up in the environment.

“Poisoning associated with the ingestion of lead fishing weights has been well documented in a variety of bird and animal species around the world, including swans, waterfowl, gulls, turtles, cranes, herons, pelicans, and others,” the document states.

The draft has spurred protests from organizations such as the California Sportfishing League. The organization’s head, who also manages state government relations for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, decried “another hit against the everyday fisherman” and called the proposed change a solution in search of a problem.

“There’s the assumption there that there is the degradation and there is the damage, and I don’t see anything that says there is,” said California Sportfishing League president David Dickerson. “What we’re saying is the ingestion is very small and it does not affect the population of the wildlife.”

Not so, say environmental advocates who have studied the issue. Jeff Miller of the Center for Biological Diversity pointed to a body of research his organization spotlighted when it unsuccessfully prodded the federal Environmental Protection Agency to address lead tackle.

“The science on small amounts of lead causing health problems and mortality for birds is pretty robust,” Miller said. “We know the effects of lead, we know it doesn’t take a lot of lead to kill a bird, and we know birds that are picking up these lead sinkers and ingesting them thinking they’re pebbles or grit.”

Concerns over the potential repercussions mirror last year’s debate over legislation banning lead ammunition in California by 2019. While proponents argued that lead bullets pose a risk to wildlife and can be replaced with other, less toxic types of ammunition, critics warned of the cost to both manufacturers and hunters. Fishermen voice similar arguments.

“We knew when they were coming after lead ammo that lead tackle was going to be next,” said Jim Martin, West Coast director for the Recreational Fishing Alliance. “A lot of people have enough lead to last the rest of their lives in their tacklebox. At what point do you say, you can’t use this any more and you need to buy an expensive alternative?”