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How Fishing Line Hurts Birds

Fishing Line is a Hazard to Birds


Fishing Line

Tangles of fishing line can be deadly to birds.


Fishing line may seem like a simple byproduct of enjoying a day by the lake or river, but discarded fishing line can be a vicious hazard to many kinds of birds, causing not only injuries but a range of other problems.

Where Fishing Line Threatens Birds

Anywhere fishing line is carelessly discarded, it can be a threat to birds. The most common areas where fishing line is a hazard include along popular fishing shorelines of rivers, lakes and beaches, off public fishing docks in urban and suburban areas and tangled in trees and bushes near fishing spots. In any of these areas, birds can be ensnared in the line, leading to injuries, drowning and other threats.

Birds Affected by Fishing Line

At first thought, many fishers and birders assume that fishing line only threatens birds in the water where fishing takes place, such as ducks, geese and other waterfowl. While these types of birds do have a higher rate of fishing line injuries, the line can also affect other types of birds, including:

  • Gulls, terns and shorebirds on beaches
  • Wading birds that forage alongside rivers
  • Songbirds that get snared in tree tangles
  • Raptors that hunt in fishing areas

Not only can fishing line threaten a wide variety of birds, but other animals such as turtles, muskrats, otters and even curious pets can be at risk in areas where fishing line is inappropriately discarded. In rare cases, large tangles of fishing line have even been known to injure kayakers or swimmers.

How Fishing Line Hurts Birds

Monofilament fishing line is a strong, durable material that does not degrade or decompose, so one tangle can stay in an area for months or years, threatening birds and other wildlife every day. Depending on the size or length of the line and how birds encounter it, fishing line can hurt birds in many ways, such as:

  • Tangle Injuries: Birds that get tangled in fishing line will struggle, but the line only tightens and can cut into legs, feet, necks, wings and any other body part that gets ensnared. When the line tightens enough without relief, limbs can be critically disabled, even amputated.

  • Movement Restriction: If the fishing line does not tighten enough to cause a serious injury to a bird, it can still restrict their movement by decreasing the range of motion of their legs or wings. This can make it harder to forage or escape from predators.

  • Starvation: When fishing line gets tangled around a bird's bill, it can cause starvation as the bird is unable to forage effectively. Birds that accidentally ingest fishing line may eventually starve as well, as the plastic in their stomach restricts how much food they can digest.

  • Drowning: When birds are netted by discarded fishing line, they may drown as a tide comes in, waters rise or their struggles force them under the water with no way to escape.

  • Nest Risks: Birds may be tempted to use fishing line in their nests, but doing so can threaten both brooding parents and young hatchlings. Parents may get tangled as they shift around while brooding, and as young birds grow, they can be tangled in loose bits of line. In extreme cases, hatchlings may even be bound together by a tangle as they grow, resulting in poor growth, as in a case of conjoined robins in Utah in 2011.

  • Hook Injuries: When discarded fishing line contains hooks, birds might see the glittery trinket as a tempting morsel, but their mouths and throats can be cut by the hook. Hooks can also cut into birds that are snared in fishing line, causing additional injuries that can become infected.

  • Lead Poisoning: If fishing line is attached to lead sinkers, birds that ingest those sinkers are subject to the toxic effects of lead poisoning. This type of poisoning can be a lengthy, debilitating illness that causes much suffering for affected birds.

  • Overfishing: While discarded fishing line is not responsible for overfishing, if an area is very popular with sport fishermen the food supply for piscivorous birds is severely depleted. This can force them to adjust their range or rely on less suitable food sources that do not provide the best nutrition.

How You Can Help

Because fishing line is such a potent hazard to birds, it is imperative that it be properly cleaned up and safely disposed of. Whether or not you fish, you can always help.

  • Remove any discarded line you come across, or any line that breaks when you are fishing.
  • Look for tangles whenever you are birding in a riparian area that is open to fishing.
  • Organize a fishing line collection from your local birding club, school group or service group.
  • Carry small scissors at all times in order to cut line free if you do find it.
  • Contact bird rescue organizations if you find a tangled bird so it can get help quickly.
  • Only fish in authorized areas where the risk of line tangling in trees or brush is minimal.
  • Use the proper fishing line weight and tackle when fishing to minimize the risk of breakage.
  • Share information about how fishing line hurts birds with other fishers so they can take appropriate steps to safeguard wildlife.

Fishing line may itself be lightweight, but it is a heavy risk to many types of birds. Understanding those risks is the first step in being able to help keep birds and other wildlife safe in fishing areas.

Photo – Fishing Line Tangle © Roger

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