Is lead a miracle metal or an environmental evil?
It is neither. It is a naturally occurring element that anglers have used to make sinkers for thousands of years.
Today, it’s also the preferred material for jigheads and as ballast in hard lures and spinnerbaits. The sinker business alone is worth $100 million annually and jigheads $75 million, according to the American Sportfishing Institute.
But because of its toxic nature in some applications, such as paint and plumbing, lead also is a material demonized with hyperbole and distortion of facts by some environmentalists who want to ban its use by fishermen.
Ground zero for this assault is New England, where defenders of the loon claim that lead weights threaten survival of the iconic bird. Loons, they assert, ingest sinkers and then die of lead poisoning.
This does happen to a few birds annually. But studies and statistics don’t support their argument that populations are in any way threatened. Degradation of shoreline habitat for these reclusive birds poses a far greater danger.
Additionally, loons are ingesting tiny pieces of lead, not bullet weights or jigheads, which also are targeted in this emotion-driven propaganda effort in which misinformation is rampant.
“The public hears about this anti-lead campaign and you’d be amazed at the phone calls I get,” said Gordon Robertson, ASA vice president.
“I get college students who think lead is like an aspirin. You drop it in the water, it dissolves, and the water becomes toxic.”
“We came by lead honestly,” he continued. “It’s cheap, easy to work with, and ubiquitous. And we don’t make lead, we move it around. But mistaken ideas like that make discussion difficult.”
In fact, lead does not dissolve in water. Yes, visualizing the accumulation of weights at the bottom of a lake or river is not aesthetically appealing, but that’s not the same as posing an environmental hazard. The soft, heavy metal is harmful only when ingested or inhaled (as dust from lead-based paint, for example).
“Lead is not a population problem for loons or any other bird,” Robertson said. “Yes, it kills a few individuals, but we manage for populations. Legislators don’t understand the management process. They don’t understand the realities.
“That’s why regulations about lead should come from fish and wildlife agencies, not legislatures. And bans should occur only where there are documented problems. Legislatures are much more likely to go for statewide bans.”
And while lead is not the environmental evil that its detractors claim it to be, it is more than a preferred material for sinkers and other fishing tackle; it is essential. Yes, some alternatives --- tungsten, steel, brass, tin, bismuth --- exist. But as with green energy options, much research will be necessary before they are commercially viable on a large scale.
“I like tungsten weights,” said Stephen Headrick, who makes Punisher jigs. “But I tried to go with tungsten (for jigheads) and it was too expensive. Also, most anything to do with tungsten is made in China. You buy tungsten and you are sending American jobs overseas.
“My jigheads are made in the U.S.”
T.J. Stallings of TTI-Blakemore echoed Headrick’s appraisal. “We looked at tungsten, but it’s cost prohibitive,” he said, adding that the higher melting points of tungsten, steel, and glass can destroy the temper of a hook.
“We’re working on a non-lead option so we will stop losing business in New England,” he added. “But fishermen are conservationists by default. The problem with lead is that we’re living in the age of misinformation and liars. That’s why we have this fear of lead.”
Alternatives for weights, meanwhile, are more practical than they are for jigheads, and that’s why Bullet Weights and other companies offer them. Still, tungsten, brass, steel, and tin make up only a fraction of the market.
“With tungsten, you are paying a higher price for performance, and it’s still only a small portion of our business,” said Joe Crumrine, president of the company. “Our Ultra Steel continues to grow in popularity, but we still sell more lead than anything.”
That includes split shot, the largest segment of the sinker market, but tin is making inroads, Crumrine said.
“No other material is soft enough,” he explained. “It costs twice as much as lead, but we sell a lot of it, even in areas where there are no lead bans.”
What’s most important, Robertson said, is that anglers themselves are able to choose whether they want to use lead or tin or tungsten. Among fishing advocates, the greatest fear is that lead bans will discourage participation, and that will mean the loss of critical revenue for state fish and wildlife agencies. That’s because they are funded primarily by anglers through license fees and excise taxes on fishing tackle, including lead sinkers.
“The more barriers that are put up, the more it hurts the industry and the resource,” he said. “And we’re not making lead. We’re simply using what exists.”
What’s the Alternative?
As someone not afraid to call himself an environmental steward as well as an angler, Teeg Stouffer understands the practicality of lead use in the fishing industry.
“I don’t think that lead is the worst thing facing our waters and I don’t think we should ban it,” said the executive director of Recycled Fish, a conservation organization.
But he would like to see the industry move more aggressively toward development of practical alternatives.
“We know that lead is a toxic substance, and nobody goes fishing with the intention to spread a toxic substance,” he said.
“If we have non-toxic alternatives available, why not use them? We don’t advocate for bans, but we do advocate for angler education. We believe that people want to do the right thing when they know what the right thing is, and most people don’t have information about alternatives. We want to help provide that information.”
Stouffer added that he’s caught hundreds of fish on lead-free jigheads, most of them made of tin-bismuth. He also owns some made of tungsten, which he admits are costly, and even some glass ones. “They’re really cool, but not super practical,” he said.
With the lead-free jigheads, he explained, “I have not experienced any issues with longevity or fishability, nor have I heard those objections from anyone else who is using lead-free products.”
What Stouffer wants to see is a consumer-driven switch from lead to alternatives.
“Would fishing tackle manufacturers be willing to spool up production to make a non-toxic product to satisfy this market?” he asked. “Many manufacturers, both small and large, already are.”
(A variation of this article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)