How PCBs Can Save Our Ducks

Fear of dying may accomplish what common sense and voluntary restraint have so far failed to do.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Duck shooters have different expectations than upland bird hunters, and these expectations are the source of many of waterfowling's woes. Duck shooters generally take a box or two of shotgun shells into the marsh and wonder whether they'll have enough. Grouse hunters fill the 10 or a dozen loops in their shooting vests and generally return home with shells to spare.

Most upland hunters feel amply rewarded with one or two birds an outing, but most duck shooters seem unsatisfied if they get only one or two of the current five- or six-bird (depending on flyway) daily limit. Yet the waterfowler and the upland hunter are often one and the same person. One week, a hunter will boast about a 5-mile hike through thickets and briers for a brace of birds. The next, he'll complain about a "lack of action," after shooting a couple of ducks while swapping stories with buddies in a wind-sheltered blind.

Voluntary Restraint? No Thanks!

Back in the mid-1980s, when North American duck populations plummeted to historic lows, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service took only the most timid steps toward conserving what was left. (The service's reputation was saved when rains, not responsible management, restored the flocks a decade later.) However, the Delta Waterfowl Foundation (Dept. FS, P.O. Box 3128, Bismarck, ND 58502; www.deltawaterfowl.com) initiated a campaign of voluntary restraint to add to its successful adopt-a-pothole, hen house, and predator management programs. Voluntary restraint means taking shots only at birds well within the effective killing range of steel shot, avoiding hens of the majority of species for which in-flight identification is possible, and being satisfied with only one or two ducks per day.

Hunters concerned about the legal but still excessive shooting of ducks could join the voluntary restraint program. Delta hoped that by giving conservation-minded duck hunters a program to rally 'round, it could use their memberships to persuade waterfowl administrators in Washington, D.C., to consider more conservative seasons and limits.

Although the campaign continues to the present, Delta has enlisted the support of fewer than 3,000 sportsmen nationwide. And although season after season, duck hunters across the United States continue to find only scattered concentrations of birds, the majority seem to prefer the comforting propaganda of those with a vested interest in selling hunting licenses and duck stamps to the evidence of those seeking to establish a new waterfowling ethic that would end the boom-and-bust cycles triggered by heavy-harvest-oriented management.

Eat Duck Now, Die Later?
Ironically, the growing concern about cancer-causing pollutants in wild ducks -- ranging from heavy metals and pesticides to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) -- could ultimately accomplish what common sense and voluntary restraint have failed to do. In the past, states as far apart as Montana and New York have issued local warnings about the edibility of certain waterfowl. More than a decade ago, New York even came up with an advisory for hunters to eat no more than one dabbling duck (mallard, gadwall, teal, etc.) per week, no more than one diving duck (scaup, redhead, goldeneye, etc.) per month, and no mergansers, period. (Last year, New York simplified its advisory to no more than two meals per month of any wild duck -- but not including mergansers, which are still taboo.) Generally, however, as media interest in each new alarm fades, the agency that issued the warning goes back to doing what agencies do best (selling licenses), and waterfowlers go back to doing what they do best (trying to kill every duck the law allows).

Last year, for example, acting on information provided by Texas A&M; University and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Massachusetts Department of Public Health alerted hunters to the hazards of eating healthy-seeming -- but PCB-contaminated -- waterfowl.

Research technicians had found staggeringly high PCB levels in 45 mallards and wood ducks shot at two locations along the Housatonic River. Whereas the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) accepts no more than 3 parts per million (ppm) of PCBs in domestic poultry, the Housatonic-harvested ducks averaged 7.1 ppm of PCBs in their breast muscles and a whopping 262 ppm in their livers! Massachusetts offered free blood tests for resident sportsmen who feared they might have eaten PCB-contaminated birds. However, by March of this year, when I called the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife hotline (800-240-4266) to find out how many sportsmen had responded to the offer, I was told that, after an initial flurry, "the situation died down."

That's the trouble with state advisories. They come from agencies that fail to follow up initial testing and news releases with ongoing testing and publicity. Only the federal government has the financial resources -- to say nothing of the responsibility -- to randomly test the flesh of federally managed gamebirds on an annual basis.

If the FDA were to launch such a program in the interest of public health -- after all, approximately 2.5 million North Americans hunt and presumably serve wild ducks to their families and friends -- waterfowlers everywhere would learn that ducks eat everything from domestic grains (which may be contaminated with pesticides) to invertebrates (which may be laced with heavy metals); there's no telling where or when these highly migratory birds will find a polluted environment.

If waterfowlers were provided with annual advisories from the federal government regarding the relative risks of eating wild ducks, we'd stop our current overshooting of the birds. After all, how many ducks do we need for only two meals a month? And while contaminated ducks may be a sad commentary on our out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitudes toward industrial waste, the birds may -- perversely -- reach new levels of abundance once most waterfowlers realize that the most successful hunts are those during which we see lots of birds (and kill a few) rather than those during which we kill all of the relatively few birds we see.