The state's loon population is improving, but lead fishing sinkers are still to blame for half of all loon deaths.
Senior Biologist/Executive Director Harry Vogel of the Moultonborough-based Loon Preservation Committee reported the results of the 2014 Loon Census at the committee’s annual meeting on Thursday.
Vogel said 297 pairs of loons were reported this year in New Hampshire, a gain of 13 pairs from last year. “This is not gangbuster growth, but marginal improvement. Growth is better than decline,” he said.
Vogel said committee members that this year set nesting rafts to provide alternative nesting sites that adapt to changing water levels. One out of every five pairs were hatched off rafts set out by volunteers.
In addition, the LPC put out a record number of warning signs and rope lines to alert people to nesting sites were loons were incubating eggs.
“One out of two chicks hatched came from territory with rope signs where loons were protected,” said Vogel. The LPC continued to work with dam operators to maintain water levels where chicks were present. He said all these efforts resulted in about 90 percent of the chicks hatching, all benefiting from direct management.
The bad news, said Vogel, is that despite all efforts, “we just barely hit the minimum reproductive rate to maintain the loon population.”
He said lead poisoning is still the leading single cause of loon fatalities – loons ingest the lead sinkers when they eat the fish that swallowed the lures and got away by breaking the fishing line.
According to the LRC, the largest known cause of New Hampshire adult loon mortality is ingestion of fishing tackle made of lead — specifically, lead sinkers and jigs (weighted hooks) weighing 1 ounce or less. New Hampshire lost at least 124 adult loons to ingested lead sinkers and jigs between 1989 and 2011. The loss of the loons, which do not reproduce until their sixth year of life on average, has had a large negative impact on the state’s small loon population. Vogel said New Hampshire once had twice as many loons as reported this year, and that the effort to increase the population will take time.
“Despite painfully slow progress, we’re only halfway to our goal. We have a long way to go,” he said.
Vogel said loon mortality from lead is being caused by current fishing incidents and not by long-lost lead lures on the shore or bottom of lakes. One way a loon can ingest the deadly metal is to eat the fish – typically a four- to six-inch yellow perch – that ingested the sinker then broke the fishing line.
He said loons would benefit immediately if fishermen stopped using the leaded sinkers. Lures or sinkers made of anything but lead are safe for loons, but the smallest piece of lead could cause death in two to four weeks.
Senate Bill 89, which passed last year but doesn’t take effect until 2016, closes the size loophole for leaded sinkers and jigs.
While the one-ounce or less weight standard for lead sinkers is sufficient, the one-inch or less length standard for prohibited jigs has proven inadequate, according to the LPC. All of the lead jigs removed from dead NH adult loons have measured well over one inch, and most have measured more than two inches.
Effective June 1, 2016, SB 89 will remedy the current law’s major deficiency by banning the sale and freshwater use of lead sinkers and lead jigs weighing one ounce or less. Implementing the same standard for prohibited lead sinkers and lead jigs will make the law clear. The three-year phase in period gives anglers and retailers time to transition to non-lead tackle.
Humans pose another threat to loons. The 2014 monitoring season got off to a sad start in May when LPC biologists recovered the first loon of the year to die from ingesting fishing tackle in Lake Wentworth, and later in the month found that two loons had been intentionally shot, one in Gilford and the other in Dover. Both loons died.
Loons are on the list of threatened species in New Hampshire and are protected by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
One last positive note was the high number of chicks born on the state’s largest lake. This year, 22 chicks hatched in managed territories on Lake Winnipesaukee.
“So that proves there is habitat out there, and loons and people can coexist. Overall. I’d say loons had a fair to good year, but Lake Winnipesaukee was a standout area,” he said, adding that the hatching areas were mostly in the northern part of lake in quiet, secluded bays.