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Protecting loons: Who bears the cost?

Last year, someone shot a loon on Back Lake up in Pittsburg. Loons are classified as a threatened species in New Hampshire and are protected by state and federal law. The total state and local fines for killing one can reach $252,000. And yet fishermen kill loons every summer in New Hampshire and get away with it.

The fishermen don't mean to kill the birds. They are only trying to catch fish, usually bass. They weight their lines with sinkers and jigs made of lead, as they've always done. Loons eat the lead and don't last long after that.

That is why the Loon Preservation Committee and other environmental groups want to ban the sale and freshwater use of lead sinkers and jigs that weigh less than one ounce. The state has restricted lead sinkers, but not jigs, and loons are still dying.

Angler organizations say banning the lead products will cost fishermen tons of money. They say, too, that loon populations are rising, so there is no problem. But there is a problem.

Loon populations, declining for a long time, have risen in recent years. That is not because lead suddenly stopped being a threat. It is because the state and volunteer organizations like the Loon Preservation Committee have worked very hard to rebuild the populations. One fishing season in which a lot of loons happen to swallow lead can wipe out years' worth of work by the state and volunteer groups.

Lead sinkers and jigs are cheap - for anglers. They are very expensive for loons. The birds used to bear all of that cost, but preservationists and Fish and Game have eased the burden. Together they pay a heavy cost so that fishermen can save a little money on weights and jigs. It seems to make more sense to have the fishermen pay a little more for tackle rather than have so many people working so hard to keep that cheap lead out of the mouths of these cherished birds.

Editor's note: The initial version of this editorial incorrectly stated that the bill would ban all lead sinkers and jigs. It would not.

Eric Church
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