Linda and I were working in the garden when we heard a voice hollering from the woods. I thought I heard, “I’ve got a loon and need help.”
That didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but sure enough, when I stepped into the woods, there was Shearon Murphy with a loon cradled under her arm. And here is that loon’s story.
Jane Naliboff photographed the loon the morning of Sept. 7 on Minnehonk Lake. Something about the loon looked very wrong, so she emailed the photos to Keel Kemper, a wildlife biologist with Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Kemper agreed that the loon was in trouble and recommended a rescue. Naliboff contacted Avian Haven, and late that afternoon, Shearon Murphy, a volunteer waterfowl rescuer, showed up with her kayak, paddled out to the loon, now in the outlet of the lake right behind our Mount Vernon home, and simply reached down and picked it up. Definitely not something that would ever happen with a healthy loon.
Looking into the right eye of that beautiful creature, I too knew that something was very very wrong. The loon’s head and neck languished on Murphy’s hip as I drove her back to her vehicle. We loaded the loon into a box, covered it up with a sheet I’d grabbed from our garage, and Murphy took off to deliver the loon to Avian Haven, where a large lead sinker was found in its gizzard.
The next day, Naliboff published her story and lots of photos in the Daily Bulldog, reporting, “The good news is that after lavage, (pouring water into the gizzard to flush out the sinker) it worked. The sinker came out! It’s now getting chelation therapy to lower the lead level to a normal range. When that happens, it will be released back to its natural environment. It’s a happy ending for what was almost another dead water bird due to human behavior.”
Boy, I was some old happy to read this and pleased with the small role I played in the rescue of this beautiful creature.
Alas, at 9 p.m., Naliboff posted this: “It is with great sadness and disappointment that I must tell you: despite a successful lavage procedure, our friend survived only a few more hours before succumbing to lead poisoning. Everyone did all they could, and we are all heartbroken.”
The rest of the story is even worse. Quite a few years ago, Maine Audubon proposed and lobbied for a new law banning the sale of lead sinkers weighing one ounce or less.
On behalf of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, I successfully lobbied to reduce the weight to half an ounce or less, and the bill was enacted.
The lead sinker that killed the loon weighed five-eighths of an ounce — slightly more than the half-ounce that was banned. I was stunned to hear that from the owner of Avian Haven. And humbled, feeling partially responsible for the bird’s death.
When Audubon proposed the bill, alternatives to lead sinkers were new to the market and much more expensive. That was my rationale for opposing the bill and working to reduce the weight of the banned sinkers.
The weight reduction, however, was not the only error made. We didn’t ban the use of lead sinkers. Perhaps we understood the impossibility of getting such a ban enacted by the Legislature. I really don’t remember.
Many anglers continue to use lead sinkers, even though lots of alternatives are readily available today, prices of those other types of sinkers have come down, and many stores, including L.L. Bean, don’t sell lead sinkers anymore.
Although I rarely use sinkers these days, my tackle boxes are full of lead sinkers — enough for at least my next two generations of anglers.
Soon after that loon died, I collected all those sinkers and set them aside. But when I inquired about disposal, I discovered this won’t be easy.
Lead sinkers are hazardous waste. That’s right. We’re fishing with hazardous waste! I’ll be working with my local transfer station supervisor to properly dispose of my lead sinkers.
And I urge all Maine anglers join me in ridding our tackle boxes of lead sinkers. Better late than never.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.