CALIFORNIA POLITICS
Capitol Journal

Brown administration's angling to ban lead fishing weights

Toxicity experts are looking into banning lead fishing gear in California

Californians who enjoy fishing, heads up: Gov. Jerry Brown has his eye on your tackle box.

He's especially interested in your lead sinkers, starting with the tiny split shot.

Those little buggers can get lost in the water and be ingested by careless waterfowl that then become debilitated or die from lead poisoning.

So the governor has authorized his toxicity experts to look into possibly banning lead fishing gear in California.

In truth, of course, Brown isn't exactly a peeping Tom stalking the fishing equipment in your garage. He merely has signed off on a three-year study at his Department of Toxic Substances Control to thoroughly examine the environmental impact of lead tackle and consider outlawing it.

Yes, really. And I ask the same question that perhaps you do: Doesn't the state of California have higher priorities to focus on?

Like, why would state officials contemplate banning lead fishing weights to protect birds but not even dream of banishing tobacco to save humans? Never mind.

This is mostly important to birds, presumably, and people who fish. And recreational anglers are a gradually declining number in California. Back in 1974, when Brown was first elected governor, nearly 2.2 million fishing licenses were sold. Last year, about 1.8 million were, a drop of 18%. Meanwhile, the population has risen 81%.

No, I'm not blaming Brown. It's just getting harder and harder to find a good fishing hole and more costly to toss in a line. An annual fishing license starts at $46.

Now the state is thinking about dumping all the traditional weights — attached to lines so they can be cast into the water and sink to where the fish hang out — and making us buy much more expensive, non-lead gear. Perhaps made of steel, ceramic, glass, tin or tungsten.

Actually, nobody knows exactly what the state is thinking.

About all we know is that recently the toxic control department announced a three-year "work plan" as part of its Green Chemistry Initiative, to study the safety of "priority products." It budgeted $5 million for this year.

The products involve beauty and personal care, building materials and furnishings, office machinery, cleansers, clothing — and fishing gear.

"We don't understand why fishing products are considered one of the highest priorities," says David Dickerson, president of the California Sport Fishing League. "They're among the greatest concerns for Californians' safety?"

In real life, Dickerson is a lobbyist for fishing boat manufacturers.

Maureen Gorsen used to head the state toxic control department under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Now she's an environmental and land-use lawyer. She asks, "What is the scientific reasoning for including fishing equipment" on the study list?

"It's like throwing darts on a board."

This is what the department says in its written plan:

"Recreational anglers fish in sensitive habitats like lakes, rivers, streams, bays and the ocean. More than 2 million Californians fish recreationally. Together, these anglers may lose hundreds of tons of fishing and angling equipment into the environment. The hazardous chemicals in the equipment they lose can expose and potentially harm birds and other wildlife….

"Lead 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…."

OK, but no one at the department could cite a California study for me.

And anglers losing "hundreds of tons" of toxic fishing gear in the water? A lot of non-lead lures, plastic monofilament leaders, artificial flies and smelly worms, yes. But lead weights? They're normally the last to get lost and mostly return to the tackle box.

I've got sinkers inherited from my dad and a sufficient supply to last through my grandkids' lives.

Surely, no state official thinks enough law enforcement can be hired to confiscate all the lead sinkers in California — or enough wardens to cite anglers for using them.

"It would be self-regulating — like another gear restriction," says Jeff Miller, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, asserting that anglers would police themselves.

The little weights — the split shot — are the biggest culprits for waterfowl, Miller says, because the birds confuse them with the tiny pebbles they regularly ingest to help grind up food in their gizzards.

Lead weights also cause a couple of problems for humans, Miller adds.

One is that countless anglers melt down lead and make their own weights. "That's extremely toxic," he says. "Really a bad idea."

Another hazard: The angler — often a kid — who puts split shot in his mouth and bites down to clamp it on his line. Not good for the teeth, let alone toxicity.

Some northeastern states have banned lead sinkers under an ounce.

OK, if the teeny weights are the problem, then the bigger 3-and-4 ounce sinkers should be home free, right? And particularly the 3-and-4 pounders used in deep water fishing.

Not necessarily, replies Meredith Williams, the department deputy director who's running the program. "We haven't done that level of research. Right now we're trying to open up the conversation."

You can bet it will open in bait shops and on fishing piers.

"It would be disastrous," says Mickey Daniels, who owns a charter fishing boat at Lake Tahoe. "It's going to raise the cost of fishing."

I'll pay it. But first somebody needs to show me that the extra cost is really worth it for the birds — that I'm not just being harassed again by government.

Meanwhile, I'm going to go toss some lead sinkers in the water.

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

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