Lead in Fishing Tackle

Updated September 2017

Current Situation

Lead is a common component in numerous types of fishing equipment; however, it has come under increasing scrutiny over the last few decades. Mortality in some waterbird species, notably the common loon, has been linked to the ingestion of lead fishing tackle; however, it has only been shown to affect a small number of individual birds, not the health of the population. The American Sportfishing Association (ASA) has been heavily involved in educating lawmakers and the public about the minimal environmental consequences of lead tackle and the negative impacts an unwarranted ban on such tackle would have on fishing participation and sportfishing businesses.

Currently ASA is supporting efforts in Congress to prohibit the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating lead tackle under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). One effort temporarily achieves this goal while the other would be a permanent solution. The temporary measures began in 2014 and has continued each year since as part of the annual federal appropriations process—meaning they are only in effect for one year—and currently continue through the end of fiscal year 2017. Along with its conservation partners, ASA also is working with both chambers of Congress to pass legislation that would permanently exempt fishing tackle from regulation under the TSCA.

Our Position

For the following reasons, ASA opposes policies that restrict the manufacture, sale and/or use of lead fishing tackle, except in specific circumstances where it is scientifically justified (and in those instances, ASA believes policies should be enacted at the state level and originate from the agency responsible for managing natural resources in that jurisdiction):

  • ASA believes insufficient data exists to warrant nation-wide bans on lead tackle. ASA reviewed the existing science on the effects of such tackle on waterfowl populations (click here to read ASA’s review). ASA acknowledges that a small number of individual waterbirds have died from lead toxicosis associated with discarded or lost lead tackle; however, ASA believes the data do not demonstrate that lead tackle is a threat to the health of loon or other waterbird populations. Loon populations in the U.S. and Canada are stable and increasing throughout the majority of their range. In general, loon and other waterbird populations are subject to much more substantial threats, such as habitat loss through shoreline development, disease, water quality issues and predators.
  • Depending on the alternative metal and current prevailing raw material costs, non-lead fishing tackle products can cost from 10 to 20 times more than lead products. Non-lead products may not be available and most do not perform as well. Mandatory transitioning to non-lead fishing tackle would require significant and costly changes for both the sportfishing industry and anglers.
  • ASA believes there are more sensible measures than broad prohibitions to help protect waterbirds. ASA recognizes that certain waters may be “hot spots” for waterbirds’ ingestion of fishing tackle and encourages appropriate actions to protect them in those locations. These actions should be based on sound science for those specific waterbodies.
  • ASA also encourages voluntary angler education programs for the responsible use and proper disposal of lead fishing tackle and urges state and federal fish and wildlife agencies to do the same.

Issue Background

Over the last few decades, several states have enacted or considered laws to restrict lead fishing tackle; meanwhile several organizations have petitioned agencies within the federal government to take actions related to lead tackle on a national scale. These agencies include the EPA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and National Park Service (NPS).

Federal Efforts to Restrict Lead Fishing Tackle

The EPA has received several petitions related to lead fishing tackle, dating as far back as 1992. The first, by the Environmental Defense Fund and three other groups, requested the agency require such products to include a warning about their toxicity to wildlife. In 1994, the EPA proposed under the TSCA to prohibit the manufacturing, processing and distribution of certain smaller size fishing sinkers containing lead and zinc, and mixed with other substances, including those made of brass. That proposal was never finalized.

In the mid-1990s the same groups began encouraging the FWS to restrict lead sinker use on national wildlife refuges.  In April 1999, the FWS proposed creating lead-free fishing areas on certain refuges. The agency continued to include regulations regarding lead fishing tackle in its annual refuge-specific public use regulations ever since.

In March 2009, the NPS announced its intention to ban ammunition and fishing tackle with lead components in national parks by 2010. Park Service officials later stated the ban would apply only to NPS internal operations.  In addition, vendors on NPS properties have been directed to no longer purchase and restock recreational fishing products with lead when current inventories are gone.

In August 2010, the EPA was petitioned by the Center for Biological Diversity and four other organizations to ban all lead in fishing tackle and ammunition under the TSCA. This included sinkers, jigs, weighted fly line, and components that contain lead such as brass and ballast in a wide variety of lures, including spinners, stick baits and more. Four days later, the EPA denied the petition for ammunition because it is exempted under TSCA. Opposition from anglers was strong; over 43,000 anglers sent comments requesting dismissal of the petition to EPA through KeepAmericaFishing. Several state fish and game agencies submitted comments supporting denial of the petition.

In November 2010, the EPA rejected the petition. In dismissing it, the EPA indicated that the “petitioners have not demonstrated that the requested rule is necessary to protect against an unreasonable risk of injury to health or the environment, as required by the TSCA.” The EPA also cited state-specific actions and the increasing education and outreach activities being undertaken, stating that those actions “…call into question whether a national ban on lead in fishing gear would be the least burdensome, adequately protective approach to address the concern, as called for under TSCA.”

Despite the EPA’s findings that a national ban is scientifically unjustified and outside the agency’s jurisdiction, the petitioners continually challenged this decision in court. In November 2011, the petitioners submitted a new similar petition, which was also rejected by the agency.

Beginning in 2014 and each year since, Congress passed annual federal funding bills that included a provision to prohibit federal funds from being used by the EPA to regulate lead fishing tackle under the TSCA. The temporary legislative fix provided through the annual federal funding process supports and reinforces the EPA’s previous decisions and will aid ASA in its efforts to permanently exempt fishing tackle from regulation under the TSCA.

In 2016, both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate included such permanent measures in its version of the Sportsmen’s Act, but that bill died in the last days of the Congressional session in December 2016. In 2017, ASA restarted these efforts, working with both chambers of Congress to pass legislation that would include these permanent measures. The HELP for Wildlife Act, which passed out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on July 26, 2017, includes a prohibition on EPA regulating fishing tackle under TSCA.

In January 2017, the FWS issued a Director’s Order requiring the use of nontoxic ammunition and fishing tackle to the fullest extent practicable on agency lands and waters by January 2022.  However, in March 2017, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke issued a Secretarial Order that overturned the agency’s order.

ASA has organized opposition to the EPA petitions and proposals described above and supported efforts in Congress to prohibit the EPA from using appropriated funds to regulate fishing tackle under the TSCA. ASA also has continuously voiced its opposition to restrictions on lead tackle use on national wildlife refuges and national parks to the two land management agencies and Interior Department officials.

State Efforts to Restrict Lead Fishing Tackle

1998:  New Hampshire became the first state to restrict the use of lead sinkers, with the legislation taking effect in 2000. The legislation prohibits the use of lead sinkers up to 1 ounce and lead jigs up to 1 inch in length in lakes and ponds. The state later expanded the legislation to include all waters of the state. Also, in 2013, broader restrictions on the size and type were passed.

2001:  Maine passed legislation (effective in 2002) that bans the sale of lead sinkers ½ ounce or less. Additional measures were enacted in 2013. 

2002:  New York passed legislation (effective May 2004) that bans the sale of lead sinkers to the end user.

2004:  Vermont implemented a lead sinker education program.

2006:  Vermont passed legislation that prohibits the sale (effective January 1, 2006) and use (effective January 1, 2007) of lead fishing sinkers ½ ounce or less.

2011:  Connecticut introduced legislation to ban all lead sinkers and jigs, but it faced strong opposition and ultimately did not pass.

2011:  Washington implemented a regulation that prohibits the use of lead fishing weights and jigs that measure 1 ½ inches or less along the longest axis at 12 lakes. It also banned the use of flies containing lead at Long Lake in Ferry County.

2012:  Washington considered a statewide ban of certain lead fishing tackle, but abandoned legislation due to large public opposition.

2012:  Massachusetts enacted an administrative rule that prohibits the use of lead fishing sinkers and jigs less than 1 ounce in all inland waters.

2013:  The New Hampshire legislature passed more restrictive legislation than its 1998 law, banning the use of any lead jig weighing 1 ounce or less. The 2013 law is written so that the ban includes all sinkers and jigs regardless of their coating or attached skirts.

2013:  Maine passed legislation that bans the sale, use and advertisement of lead sinkers 1 ounce or less or measuring 2 ½ inches or less, expanding restrictions enacted in 2001.

2014:  California ASA had a particularly strong role in advocating for anglers in the State of California as several actions have arisen related to lead fishing tackle in recent years. The most pressing issues is that the California Department of Toxic Substances continues to explore a ban on lead fishing tackle as part of its “Priority Product Work Plan,” which remains under development.

2017:  Legislation restricting the use and sale of lead fishing tackle was proposed in 2011 and 2017 in Connecticut but the bill has failed to move forward in committee.

International Efforts to Restrict Lead Fishing Tackle

In 1997, Canada’s federal government banned the use of lead fishing sinkers less than 50 grams in national parks and wildlife areas.

Also in 1997, Great Britain banned sinkers under 1 ounce.