Written by Lisa Busa, Glade Run Lake Conservancy Director
Fishing can be a relaxing hobby and an exciting sport. Anticipating the bite, reeling in the big one, and tallying your catch, all while enjoying the beauty of nature that surrounds you. However, please keep in mind that everything we do affects nature and sometimes those results can be harmful and even deadly.
Improperly disposed of fishing line and tackle can become a death trap for wildlife. Let's discuss a few of these dangers and how we can prevent them.
The Trauma of Entanglement
Foraging is a natural behavior for animals. While pawing and scratching at the ground or dabbling in shallow waters, animals can inadvertently get fishing line wrapped around their paws, legs, and beaks.
Other dangerous situations happen when a fishing line gets snagged in tree limbs. If unable to reach the snag, the fisherman will cut the line which leaves it hanging or stretched tightly between branches. This creates an invisible trap for flying animals. While panicking to free themselves, they accidentally tangle themselves even tighter.
When wildlife become entangled in fishing line and fishing nets, it causes feather damage, tissue damage, lacerations, loss of limbs, and entanglement. They are unable to move, find food, or escape from predators. Entrapment causes exhaustion, starvation, dehydration, and ultimately death for tangled wildlife.
Barred Owl caught in fishing line in New Oxford, PA. (Photos by Wildlife in Need)
Juvenile Canada Goose at Glade Run Lake that was found with fishing line wrapped tightly around its leg. The line was cutting off circulation and causing the leg to swell. The goose was captured and taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center for medical care.
(Photos by Lisa Busa)
Fishing line can also pose a huge threat to birds during nesting season. Birds are very meticulous when creating their nests and can be very resourceful when finding building materials. They gather natural materials such as twigs, dry grasses, plant fluff, mud, feathers, and animal fur. But what happens when an unnatural material such as fishing line is left in their environment? To a bird, it may appear to be a great option for weaving a nest. However, a nest constructed with fishing line can result in death for the nestlings and the parents.
As the nestlings become more active, they can get toes, legs, wings, and even their heads caught in loops of line in the nest. Also, when parents visit the nest countless times throughout the day to feed their young, any of those times have the potential for entanglement. Could the next time they land at the nest be the last time?
This Eastern Kingbird was found at Glade Run Lake entangled and hanging just inches from the nest that it was building. Its mate sits on a branch nearby. Sadly, it was too late to save this beautiful bird. (Photos by Lisa Busa)
Two separate instances where a swallow was found hanging by fishing line from its nest at Moraine State Park. (Photos by Lisa Busa)
A bird's nest at Glade Run Lake made almost entirely of fishing line. (Photo by Lisa Busa)
Hazards of Hooks and Lures
Other types of fishing tackle that can be harmful to wildlife are hooks and lures. Hooks can be accidentally ingested by wildlife, causing irreparable internal damage. Hooks can also get caught in the skin and cause major external damage.
Left: Herring Gull in Erie County. (Photo by Wildlife in Need) | Middle: A raptor with hooks embedded in its foot. (Photo by Rowley Goonan/WILDCARE) | Right: Snapping Turtle with ingested fishing hook. Photo by Red Creek Wildlife)
Now let's talk about the soft plastic baits that are shaped like worms, frogs, and crayfish. They may seem harmless. I mean, they're not sharp and they don't pose an entanglement threat, right? So what's the harm? Soft baits are appealing to wildlife for the same reasons they are appealing to the fish that they are meant to lure in. They are usually created with a scent attractant and resemble the prey that a particular animal is looking for. After the soft bait is ingested, it goes into the animal's digestive tract where it does not break down like natural organic material. It can cause internal blockages in the digestive system which can eventually lead to starvation.
Examples of soft plastic bait. (Photo by Lisa Busa)
Last But Not Least... Lead
Lead poisoning is not uncommon in birds of prey and other wildlife. There are two primary sources of lead poisoning. One is through ingestion of lead fragments in the remnants of unclaimed hunted game animals and gut piles that have been scavenged by unsuspecting wildlife looking for an easy meal. The other is ingestion of lead fishing tackle when a fish that has swallowed lead sinkers is eaten by birds of prey and other scavengers. Also greatly affected are ducks that dabble in the muck of pond and lake bottoms such as mallards and northern shovelers. Because they do not have teeth to chew their food, they swallow pebbles which help to grind up their food in their gizzard. Unfortunately, they often mistake lead sinkers for pebbles.
Signs of lead poisoning can vary depending on the species and the amount of lead in their system. Most frequently, wildlife will exhibit neurologic symptoms such as lack of coordination, off balance, inability to stand, and seizures. They may also be weak, emaciated, have trouble breathing, and have liver and kidney damage. Sadly, once these symptoms are visible, it is most likely too late to save the animal's life.
Left: Bald Eagle with lead poisoning. (Photo by Raven Ridge Wildlife Center) | Middle: Red-tailed Hawk exhibiting neurological signs from lead poisoning. (Photo by Raven Ridge Wildlife Center) | Right: Bald Eagle with lead fragments in her digestive tract. (Photo by Blue Mountain Wildlife)
Step Up and Steward
Now that you understand how our actions can have a negative impact on our wildlife, you are most likely asking yourself what you can do to help. It's as simple as the phrase that we've all heard many times - Leave No Trace. Leave no signs that you visited a lake, river, stream, or park. In fact, you can leave it better than you found it by picking up and carrying out any litter that you find.
Here are some recommendations on how you can help reduce your negative impact and become a good steward for wildlife:
1. Switch to lead-free tackle.
2. Discard unwanted fishing line in the line recycling receptacle, in a trash can, or pick it up and take it with you to dispose of at home. Note: Balling up the fishing line and placing it under a rock is NOT an acceptable form is disposal.
3. Be aware of your surroundings. Look for low hanging branches and cast carefully to avoid snags and tangles.
4. If you do snag a lure or tangle your line, make a genuine effort to retrieve all of your tangled tackle and only leave behind what you absolutely must.
5. Before you leave or move onto another location, check the ground around you to make sure you didn't accidentally leave anything behind.
6. Carry a small trash bag with you so that you can collect and dispose of any trash you may come across.
7. Volunteer at your local park during a community lake clean up or an organized litter pick up.
8. Educate others and encourage them to also be good stewards of the environment.
About the Author
Lisa Busa joined the Glade Run Lake Conservancy Board of Directors in October 2020. She performs lake stewardship activities, helps with fundraising, and assists with species inventory. Learn more about Lisa.
Lisa Busa (far right) assists with litter pick up at Glade Run Lake.