Fishing Tackle: Threats to Wildlife

Clear your gear to help keep wildlife and the environment safe.

a painted turtle with a fish hook stuck through its mouth and noseThe Wildlife Center of Virginia has admitted dozens of wildlife patients who have sustained injuries due to entrapment in, or ingestion of, fishing tackle. The most frequently admitted species in these cases are waterfowl, turtles, and raptors who hunt near water.

These wild animals come into contact with fishing line, hooks, and netting in a variety of ways. Waterfowl and turtles become entangled when swimming in bodies of water where line and netting is carelessly discarded. Birds sometimes use fishing line and netting fragments as nesting material, which can lead to the entanglement of both the parents and chicks. The ingestion of fishing hooks is most common among turtle species who see the fisherman’s bait as a quick and easy meal. Hooks left in released fish can also be ingested by predators such as birds or large turtles.

Animals injured by fishing line must receive appropriate medical assessment and treatment. If you see an animal who is tangled in fishing line, or if you know a wild animal has swallowed a hook, contact a permitted wildlife rehabilitator or veterinarian for advice.

Of the fishing gear victims admitted to the Wildlife Center since 2011, nearly 60 percent of the patients died or were euthanized as a result of their injuries.

How does improperly discarded fishing gear hurt wildlife?

a display of fishing tackle removed from different patientsA painful struggle ensues when an animal becomes entangled in fishing line or netting. The victims of this entanglement typically suffer feather damage and lacerations from the constricting line as they fight to escape. Entangled animals are often entrapped and are unable to move, find food, or escape from predators. For bird parents, this also affects the survival of their reliant chicks. This deadly entrapment often ultimately leads to exhaustion, starvation, and dehydration if the animal is unable to free itself. 

The ingestion of fish hooks is dangerous for all species because it often results in the hook lodging into the side of an animal’s mouth, esophagus, or stomach, causing internal bleeding, regurgitation of food, tissue damage, pain, and death. When hooks and sinkers are made from lead, they can cause lead toxicity in raptors. Surgical removal of the hook, which can lead to a long recovery period, is often the only option for patients who have swallowed hooks.

What species can be hurt?

Dozens of different species of native wildlife have been admitted with injuries or problems caused by improperly discarded fishing gear. Victims most often include waterbirds and aquatic turtles, including Canada Geese, Mallards, Common Loons, Great Blue Herons, Snapping Turtles, and Eastern Painted Turtles, but this form of littering does not discriminate. Over the past decade, the Center has admitted Bald Eagles, Barred Owls, American Robins, Blue Jays, Eastern Screech-Owls, Osprey, and even a Virginia Opossum. 

What You Can Do

We can all prevent wildlife injuries and deaths caused by improperly discarded fishing line and hooks; the solution to this problem is to change our behavior.

  • Dispose of broken or leftover gear properly; never leave behind fishing line, hooks, lures, or bait. Some places offer designated fishing gear disposal options, such as fishing line recycling bins or tubes.
  • Do not release fish who still have hooks in them; if practicing catch and release, use barbless hooks.
  • If you find an animal who is entangled in fishing line, and you are able to safely capture the animal, bring the animal to a permitted wildlife rehabilitator. A rehabilitator can assess the animal to ensure there are no other inconspicuous injuries or problems related to fishing line entanglement or hook ingestion.
  • If you unintentionally hook an animal while fishing (such as a bird or turtle), remove the hook if it is possible to do so safely. If you are unable to do this, contact animal control or a permitted wildlife rehabilitator.
  • Organize a clean-up event at a local fishing spot or shoreline.
  • Share your knowledge. Educate friends, family, and neighbors who fish or recreate near water about the harmful impacts of improperly discarded fishing tackle.