Something loony in Canada

With apologies to William Shakespeare who wrote in Hamlet, “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark,” it could be said, “There is something loony in the country of Canada.”
At least, ever since federal Environment minister David Anderson announced last month that he soon will propose regulations that will bring about an eventual prohibition on the import, manufacture, and sale of fishing sinkers and jigs containing lead.
The concern, of course, is that lead is toxic to animals, humans included. It is the reason we no longer use it in water pipes, paint, or shotgun shells to name but a few lead-free products.
If birds ingest sinkers and jigs, especially loons, it can be fatal. So why the brouhaha over removing it?
Well, for starters, because there doesn’t appear to be any scientific evidence to back up Mr. Anderson’s position that the fishing products are decimating loon populations.
Not only is there no credible evidence, the scientific data from Mr. Anderson’s own department actually suggests the opposite—loon populations are thriving across the country.
Lest I be accused of exaggerating the point, I’ll defer to the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), a branch of Mr. Anderson’s own department.
In its report, “Lead fishing sinkers and jigs in Canada: Review of their use patterns and toxic impacts on wildlife,” the CWS says that, “Recent analysis of breeding survey data for all of eastern Canada indicates an overall increasing trend in the number of loon pairs over the period 1990-2000, with an overall rate of increase of 16.6 percent per annum.”
The report goes on to document loon population increases of 67.5 percent in Newfoundland, southern Labrador, and the northeast shore of Quebec, 78.0 percent in eastern Quebec, and 11.9 percent in western Quebec and the boreal forest region of Ontario.
Only in the Atlantic Highlands of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the southeast shore of Quebec is there a 5.9 percent decline.
Not surprisingly, with rosy numbers like these, the CWS concludes that “there is little evidence to suggest that loon populations are generally declining in Canada.”
So why the proposed regulation? To paraphrase the minister, and those advocating the position, “one dead loon as a result of eating a sinker or jig is one too many.”
If you think that sounds frighteningly similar to the gun control argument, hold onto your wallet, you’re in good company.
But if you agree with the rationale, then please explain this to me. I’ve always said that while we call the portion of Northwestern Ontario in which we live Sunset Country, a much better word would be paradise.
Loons obviously think so, too. The CWS says the birds reach their highest abundance in the Lake of the Woods area.
But this is the same Lake of the Woods area that has a water control board managed by the federal government, Ontario and Manitoba, and Ontario Hydro and Manitoba Hydro. The same water control board that, each spring regularly opens up and/or closes the gates at the Norman and Whitedog dams, and summarily floods nearly every loon nest upstream or down.
Over five years, the CWS found 90 dead loons in eastern Canada that it concluded had died from ingesting sinkers and jigs. That’s right—only 90 over five years in all of eastern Canada.
It is unfortunate we’re not provided with the number of loons that drowned over the same period of time—in the name of hydro production and water control—within the Lake of the Woods watershed.
It would make for an interesting comparison, especially if you believe that one dead loon is one too many. And as long as we’re counting, how many loons are legally shot and eaten each year by folks who have a constitutional right to do so?
Still, I am as guilty in condemning the Lake of the Woods Control Board as Mr. Anderson is in being critical of sinkers and jigs. It is because you don’t manage fish and wildlife populations on an individual moose, bear, deer—or loon—basis. You manage them at the population level.
And as the CWS has concluded, the loon population is not only stable, it is growing.
Still, here is what I find troublesome about Mr. Anderson’s announcement. The CWS estimates that “Recreational anglers continue to purchase in excess of 500 tonnes of lead annually in the form of lead sinkers and jigs.”
But here is what Mr. Anderson had to say in his announcement: “The Canadian Wildlife Service estimates that up to 500 tonnes of lead in the form of lead sinkers and jigs is lost in our environment every year.”
Did you catch it? Somewhere and somehow, between the CWS’s report and Mr. Anderson’s press release, the word “purchased” was switched to “lost.” A typographical error? I think not.
Just as it is a travesty not to involve the Canadian angling community and the Canadian sport fishing and tourism industries up front, as true partners, in the development of a sound science-based and achievable policy.
Instead of actively engaging Canada’s angling community and counting its members among his strongest allies, Mr. Anderson has chosen instead to ignore and alienate them. To cast them out as pariahs. Despite, I am told, of his assurances that this would not happen.
As I said, something is loony in the country of Canada.

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