Lead fishing weight ban bill amended to allow for study

A proposed bill that would have banned some lead fishing weights in California, authored by Assemblyman Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), passed out of the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials on April 26, but not before it was amended from an outright ban on fishing weights/sinkers 50 grams (about 1.75 ounces) or less to a bill that calls for a study into the impacts of lead fishing tackle on California’s “wildlife, rivers, lakes, streams, and potential drinking water sources.”

The bill – AB 2787 – passed out of the committee 6-1, with Assembly Members Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno), Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), Melissa Melendez (R-Lake Elsinore), Al Muratsuchi (D-Rolling Hills Estates), joining Quirk in voting for the amended bill. Bill Brough (R-Dana Point), was the lone committee member to vote against the bill, which was re-referred to the Assembly Committee on Appropriations. 

As amended, the bill would require that, by March 2020, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife conduct the study, in conjunction with the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the State Water Resources Control Board, and any relevant stakeholders, including sport fishing groups or associations and public health and environmental health organizations. The department would then have to submit their findings to the governor and state legislators, with “recommendations for the safe use of lead fishing tackle that protects public human health and the environment.” 

The amended bill’s text also states that the department may enter contracts to conduct the study, which concerned opponents of the original bill. 

“While we appreciate the author’s willingness to amend the bill and work with the angling community, the bill has not earned our support – not yet,” Marko Mlikotin, executive director of the California Sportfishing League – which is leading a coalition that opposes the bill – said in a statement. “The study, as defined by the author, is overly broad and could be contracted out to an anti-fishing organization, instead of an objective government agency.”

The California Sportfishing Association is among a coalition group of industries that represent fishers, boaters, marina operators, sporting goods retailers, hospitality, and tourism that argued a ban on lead fishing weights would make fishing too costly and less accessible, which would have a devastating impact on the state’s tourism industry and on communities dependent on outdoor recreation for tax revenue and jobs. 

Exactly what effects a lead fishing weight ban would have on recreational fishermen and guides is up for debate. Although proponents of a ban say that there are viable alternatives to lead for fishing tackle – such as steel, tin, and tungsten – which they say are not prohibitively more expensive, local industry figures aren’t necessarily sold on them. 

At Kittles Outdoor & Sport, a 3/8 ounce tungsten bullet weight, which owner Pat Kittle said has been marketed as “the alternative to lead,” are more than eight times as expensive as the same weights in lead. That cost could hit guides particularly hard, who often fish with inexperienced clients – meaning more lost rigs – and purchase a large amount of fishing tackle.

“I’ve been wondering that myself, what the hell we’re going to do,” said Casey Stafford, the exclusive guide service of the Colusa Indian Community and the Colusa Casino Resort. “You can’t afford to buy titanium… With steel, the weights are twice as big… It’d be real astronomical… (and) the only way we we could survive is to pass that cost along to the clients – that sucks.”

A total of six states, along with Canada, have banned lead fishing weights to some extent. In the initial bill, Quirk pointed to studies in other states, including one in New Hampshire, which identified poisoning from lead fishing tackle as the leading cause of death in adult common loons – a species of bird. In addition to loons, previous studies had found that ingested lead fishing tackle had been documented in 28 species of North American birds.

“Small lead fishing weights, like splitshot, are killing California wildlife,” Quirk said in a statement after introducing the original bill in February. “Many birds consume river gravel to aid in mashing and digesting food. Often they accidentally ingest discarded lead fishing weights. The lead poisons their liver, leading to a slow death. Waterfowl, in particular, are common victims.”

Quirk also stated at the time that “we know these weights have killed brown pelicans, herons, loons, gulls, and even harbor seals” in California. Opponents argued that no scientific study had ever been conducted in California that would justify the merits of the legislation, nor for weights of such a large size. 

Ultimately, the coalition successfully lobbied for a California-specific scientific study that illustrates the impact of lead weights on animals in the state.

“Anglers can claim a big victory here, but there is no question that we need to continue to communicate to legislators the importance of protecting recreational fishing’s future,” Mlikotin stated. “Proponents of banning lead fishing tackle will not give up, even if there is no science to justify it.”■

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Brian Pearson is the Managing Editor & Reporter for the Williams Pioneer Review. Brian joined the Williams Pioneer Review in June 2016 and is committed to bringing hyperlocal news to its readers. A few of his projects include reporting on local government and the newly feature sports page. To contact Brian about this article, or for future articles, please email him at brian@colusacountynews.net