I want to begin this article by citing I am in no way a scientist. I am not equipped to discuss the in-depth nuances of toxicity in water systems, its effect on the ecosystem or anything of the sort. I am simply a fisherman who cares about the environment. I love fishing. I want it to be around for my children and my children’s children to enjoy. If there are things we can implement now to save the sport, fish, water, and nature that I love – I am all for it.
With that out of the way – we need to seriously consider if the fishing lures we use are toxic and can be improved upon. When fishing, you are going to lose some lures in the lake. You’ll break off on a giant, get stuck in a submerged brush pile, or maybe even accidentally lose some off the side of a boat. Since we are littering, even if by accident, thousands of lures across bodies of water per year we need to consider the effects they are having.
I’ve done some research into if fishing lures cause ecological damage and this is what I have determined. Almost all of the materials used to make lures can cause some damage to the environment and are toxic to an extent. Fishing lures are not likely a main cause behind environmental distress – but could be a complicating factor. And there are a lot of things fishermen can do to help!
Are Hard Baits Toxic?
I will break this down into hard baits, soft plastics, and terminal tackle. As each presents it’s own unique toxic effects on humans, fish, and the environment in general.
When you think about a fishing lure in your brain, you are likely imagining what most would consider a “hard bait”. Something like a crankbait or a popper. They generally are made to look like fish of some kind and have many hooks protruding from their bodies.
Generally, all hard baits are made from plastic. This is because plastic is easily moldable and you can create the same shape, weight, and density every time. Which is really important for making a bait that has to run true out of the box every time and have the exact same action in the water.
But plastic is known to be an extremely toxic material, which is why many people are turning away from its production when applicable. Plastic takes hundreds to thousands of years to degrade – which means that crankbait you lost in a tree 20 feet below the water’s surface will still be there when your great grandkids are fishing it a hundred years from now.
What makes that so bad for the fish and environment however is that plastics leach many harmful chemicals into water supplies. Phthalates and Bisphenol A are two commonly known toxins that exist in plastic that can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive system in humans. Let alone the damage that it can cause to fish. So these plastics sitting underwater for hundreds of years leaching harmful toxins into the lake is a serious problem.
There is some positive here though – not all hard baits are made of plastic. Some crankbaits are made from wood or other composites and are generally specifically marketed as such. So should the use of plastic or it’s toxic effect concern you – you do have the ability to buy several hard baits that are not made with plastics. Such as this balsa wood crankbait.
You also are likely to find warning labels on many bait manufacturers that they contain materials which are known to be harmful and cause cancer or reproductive issues. This is thanks to California Proposition 65 which requires all manufacturers to label products which are known to contain harmful contaminants to Californians. Since most bait companies market to all anglers, and California has great fishing, they get included.
If you look at any of the common hard bait manufacturers like Strike King, Rapala, or Berkley you’ll find all contain Prop 65 warnings – meaning they all contain toxins known to cause cancer and reproductive harm. So the good news is they are clearly marked for you to avoid. The bad news? You won’t have many other options.
Are Soft Baits toxic too?
If you take all of the issues above that are known for hard plastics – they just grow whenever it comes to soft plastic lures.
This is because all soft plastic lures contain phthalates which we mentioned above are known to be toxic, as well as polyvinyl chloride or PVC which has its own toxic side effects especially for children. Green Peace, a longstanding nonprofit organization meant to help the environment called PVC “the most environmentally damaging of all plastics”.
This is because of the heavy use of chlorine in PVC. Like most parts of plastic, it will not break down for hundreds of years and can leach out into the surrounding environments for decades. It’s known to cause birth defects, cancer, and immune system damage among other side effects. And due to their chemical structure, they are not easily expelled by humans or animals.
Unfortunately, PVC is somewhat necessary for soft plastic lures. It is what gives the plastics their stretchy, soft feel that is required to give lifelike movements in the water. If a fish also bit a hard plastic lure they would let go immediately – meaning you would lose out on hooking most of the fish that bite. So it’s extremely toxic, but extremely necessary for soft plastic lures.
To make matters worse, while fish don’t often ingest hard baits that are sitting in the water, they do often ingest soft plastic lures. The fish may just eat soft plastics right off the hook, soft plastics that have fallen in the water or have been sitting for months. And when they do, they have a hard time passing them through their system.
As mentioned previously, plastics don’t degrade easily so there is no choice but for a soft plastic to pass it’s way through a fish’s body. In most cases, there are complications because the plastics are too large to pass naturally. They create blockages which severely affect and most often end up killing the fish.
This can become even more problematic because many different species eat dead fish. If a small fish like a normal bluegill eats a large plastic worm, it may be fatal. That dead fish is then eaten by something like a catfish which will have the plastic inside it. It may then kill the catfish or live in it’s guts for years. If an unsuspecting human then catches the catfish and tries to eat it – it will either find an unwelcome surprise or be susceptible to years of toxins the plastic worm has created in the catfish when it’s digested.
Point being – even one fish eating a plastic can cause tons of detrimental effects to predator species and the environment as a whole.
Just like the hard bait manufacturers, you will find California Prop 65 warning labels on the majority of soft plastic lures you see in the store. So you can try to avoid them, but good luck. I have only found one company expanded on here that make lures from material other than plastic.
So what about terminal tackle? It's not plastic!
So by now you’re probably thinking – okay basically all plastic lures are bad. So I should just try and use the non plastic kinds. Well unfortunately there are issues here as well.
If you aren’t using a plastic lure you are likely using some type of weighted jig head which includes fibers, silicone skirts, or some type of natural material meant to mimic natural species. These include hair jigs or things like spinnerbaits.
The good news is that silicone and many of the fibers used on jigs is actually not toxic or harmful to the environment. So even if you lose your best jig at the bottom of the lake it is not likely to leach out harmful toxins for hundreds of years even if it will exist there for a long time. And the more natural fibers in hair jigs will actually only survive a short while.
The bad news is that almost all of these are weighted down by lead heads, which is toxic and harmful for the environment.
Lead is quite widely known to be a harmful chemical, often cited in paint as causing harm in children and adults alike. Exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia, weakness, and kidney and brain damage – even death in some cases. And because lead can live infinitely without degrading, it constantly leaches into our environment if left in water.
But now for the good news – many higher end lures and weights are now made with tungsten instead of lead. It is denser and more sensitive, which actually makes it a better weight if you’re really into fishing. It is, however, much more expensive than lead.
But, after several studies, tungsten has been determined to not be considered as toxic for humans. Whereas lead is very toxic, tungsten is not as bad. Studies are still underway and it is now believed tungsten may leach over time, but it is thought to be a better alternative to lead even if not perfect. So if you want to be an environmentally-conscious fisherman or just don’t want to contribute to lead pollution – you can switch to just using tungsten fishing products like these.
And much like all plastic lures, you will find California Prop 65 warning labels on all jigheads, weights, or other fishing lures that contain lead as it is a known toxin. So you can avoid it if needed when going shopping at your tackle store.
So after looking at all components that make up the majority of fishing lures – yes most fishing lures are in fact toxic. You should not be leaving them in waterways, lakes, rivers or really anywhere in the environment as they will leach and cause harm over time. Will you kill all of the fish with a few lost baits? Of course not. But the buildup of plastics, lead, and other harmful contaminants over time can cause serious concerns.
If you are concerned about fishing lures containing toxins, try to look for any that do not have the CA Prop 65 warning label included on the packaging and opt for weights or jig heads made with tungsten when applicable. Also read this article which talks about 5 ways you can be more eco-friendly.