Type E Botulism is taking its toll on loons and other waterfowl in the Great Lakes region. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)
A relatively new disease that kills birds and fish continues to spread in the Great Lakes basin. Scientists want to understand how Type E botulism is transmitted before it becomes an epidemic. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:
A relatively new disease that kills birds and fish continues to spread in the Great Lakes basin. Scientists want to understand how Type E Botulism is transmitted before it becomes an epidemic. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s David Sommerstein reports:
Type E Botulism has killed thousands of loons, mergansers, and other birds on Lakes Ontario and Erie since 1998. So when biologist Tom Langen heard two dead seagulls on the St. Lawrence River had it, he investigated. He took a 350-mile boat ride along the length of the river. He collected all the dead birds and fish he could find for testing.
Langen says the toxin is related to invasive species like the round goby and zebra mussels and passed up the food chain.
“The link seems to be somehow associated between mussels, the fish which feed on the mussels, and then the birds and fish that feed on the round gobies or feed on the mussels.”
Langen says stopping the spread of Type E Botulism is also important for people. Humans can get the disease if they eat birds or fish that are contaminated.
Dave Zentner caught a smallmouth bass using a
bismuth sinker. Zentner is active in the Izaak Walton League,
and he wants more anglers to switch to non-lead tackle, which can poison eagles, loons and other water birds. (Photo by Stephanie
Anglers around the Great Lakes region are starting to pay more attention to some of the smallest and most humble pieces of gear in their tackle box – lead weights and jigs. Recent research shows lead fishing tackle is killing eagles, loons and other water birds. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Anglers around the Great Lakes region are starting to pay more attention to some of the smallest
and most humble pieces of gear in their tackle box – lead weights and jigs. Recent research shows
lead fishing tackle is killing eagles, loons and other water birds. The Great Lakes Radio
Consortium’s Stephanie Hemphill reports:
Outside a Gander Mountain outdoor gear store in Duluth, Minnesota, there’s a steady stream of
people dropping lead tackle into a cardboard box. They bring it in plastic bags, in jars, and in the
original wrappers. They walk away with a small supply of sinkers made of steel, tungsten, or
Jim Simmons says he doesn’t use much lead tackle, but he’s ready to get rid of most of his supply.
“Well, I just brought in one package of split shot,” he says.
“What did they give you in exchange?”
“Some jigs, a couple of weights.”
“What are they made of?”
“They’re made of steel, and one is ceramic.”
“How do you think it will work?”
“I think it’ll work fine. We’ll try it out, give it a shot anyway!”
Inside the store, another angler says he doesn’t want to poison loons, but he isn’t ready to give up
his investment in lead weights.
“I have the tackle so I might as well use it,” he says. “Maybe I’ll switch to the other stuff, as I use
up the old.”
But a lot of anglers simply don’t realize lead tackle could be hurting wildlife.
No one uses lead shot for hunting anymore. It was banned years ago. But loons, eagles, and other
birds are still dying from lead poisoning.
Eagles can be poisoned by eating birds that have eaten lead.
Loons dive to the bottom of lakes and pick up pebbles and eat them. The pebbles go to the bird’s
gizzard, where they help grind up the small fish they eat. If they happen to swallow a lead sinker
or jig that some angler has lost, it only takes a small piece to poison the bird.
Some studies in New England have found as many as half the loons could be dying from lead
poisoning. In the Midwest, the figure is lower, but more research is underway.
Dave Zentner loves to fish. He’s an active member of the Isaac Walton League, a national
He’s trying out the non-lead jigs for the first time, from a canoe in the St. Louis River near Duluth.
He keeps getting his line caught in the rocks on the bottom.
“There’s nothing that feels differently to me about this tungsten jig. It fishes with that twister-tail
just like any lead jig I would have hooked on before. And it sure as heck has been effective in
getting me snagged up!”
Zentner casts over and over, and loses his jig in the rocks. He reaches for another one, made of
“We left a piece of fishing gear down there,” he says. “And if a loon or a merganser decides to try
to eat it, we haven’t left something that’s going to make it sick.”
Dave Zentner was hoping the Minnesota legislature would ban lead tackle. Small lead sinkers are
banned in New Hampshire, Maine, and national parks in Canada. A New York ban takes effect
next spring. But in Minnesota, fishing groups and tackle manufacturers fought the bill.
So instead, the state is running a voluntary exchange program, and hoping to raise awareness
Zentner says some people won’t want to spend a little extra for the bismuth and tungsten weights
that behave like lead. But he says prices will come down as the demand goes up.
“And let’s make a little sacrifice, even if the price is a little higher,” he says. “We buy RVs and
ATVs and boats and motors, we spend thousands and thousands of dollars. And this is a
proposition that’s miniscule compared to that one.”
So far, a few tackle manufacturers have added non-lead alternatives to their product lines. But
there aren’t nearly as many choices as the lead products offer. Manufacturers are reluctant to re-
tool until they know people will buy the new lead-free products.
It could take years to persuade large numbers of anglers to switch from their tried and true gear.
But Dave Zentner says that’s what he’s going to try to do.
“We don’t want to put the tackle people out of business, we want them to stay in business,” he
says. “But we’re simply saying – it appears there’s a problem; let’s go to work on it, let’s educate,
let’s experiment, let’s work together.”
Finally Zentner proves the non-lead tackle works by catching a small-mouth bass.
“And it is a little guy!”
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Stephanie Hemphill.