Environmental watchdog investigating ‘high’ lead levels in ducks from Victorian wetlands

Wedge-tailed vultures and other protected species are at risk of being paralyzed by lead poisoning in Victoria, according to wildlife advocates, with illegal lead ammunition still being used in duck hunting.

Freedom of Information documents reveal that humans are also at risk, with lead levels in ducks “significantly above” food safety standards in four Victorian-era duck-hunting waterways.

Confidential email correspondence shows that the state’s environmental watchdog has been aware of “high” lead levels in ducks from several wetlands used for hunting since 2018, but has not declared the danger or issued any warnings.

Environmental Protection Victoria said this was because the test was not conclusive.

CSIRO states that even small traces of lead are extremely harmful to humans and animals, as the substance is highly toxic.

Lead in a Duck – Alert email from the EPA to Victoria’s Chief Environmentalist reports testing samples from 2018 that revealed high levels of lead in ducks from Serpentines Creek in western Victoria, Richardson’s Lagoon in northern Victoria and Heart Morass and Macleod Morass in Gippsland.

Emails show that ducks were retested in 2020 and found to contain lead levels that pose potential risks to human health.

There is a picture of a brown duck floating on some water.
Emails from the Environmental Protection Agency say high lead levels in ducks in Victoria could be harmful to humans.(ABC News: Daniel Bonica)

“New results came out on Monday and confirmed the presence of high levels of lead in duck tissues. Again, well above FSANZ (Food Standards in Australia and New Zealand),” the 2020 email read.

The chief environmentalist told the EPA that the findings required further investigation to assess “potential risks to the environment and human health” and recommended that this be done before the start of the 2021 season.

This test is still running.

Bullets are still in use despite two decades on the ban list

The use of lead in duck hunting is illegal in Victoria and has been done since 2001 with the Game Management Authority stating that “lead is a toxic substance that can harm humans, wildlife and the environment”.

Illegal bullet ammunition was used in Victoria as recently as last month – six poachers received penalties for possession of a poison bullet in a Victorian wetland during the 2022 season.

Regional Victorians opposed to Duck Shooting project manager Sue Williams said four recreational seasons for ducks and quails have been allowed to proceed since lead levels in ducks were first determined.

“It is simply incomprehensible that the government has not issued any public warnings about the levels of lead found in ducks throughout our state,” she said.

“The fact that ducks contain toxic levels of lead in 20 percent of the wetlands surveyed suggests that the danger is frighteningly widespread, given that shooting ducks are permitted in thousands of public places.”

duck hunting
Bullet ammunition is still used by Victorian duck hunters despite it being illegal.(ABC News: Jin Kwan)

The EPA said that sampling and analysis on ducks in 2018 was conducted to assess the presence of PFAS in ducks in various Victorian waterways and additional sampling and analysis in 2020 for the presence of trace metals.

“The results are inconclusive – lead levels in liver samples were lower than in breast samples, which is contrary to what was expected,” said Mark Taylor, senior environmentalist.

“The EPA will conduct further sampling and analysis to understand if there are any risks to human health from lead in ducks.”

In June 2021, then-Victorian Agriculture Minister Mary Ann Thomas was asked in state parliament whether lead levels above food safety guidelines had been found in ducks in the swamps of Hart Moras and McLeod of Moras.

In a written response in August 2021, the minister stated that her department was not aware of any “publicly” available scientific studies to determine lead levels in ducks in wetlands, even though the EPA completed testing results in 2018.

The Victorian government approved a full three-month duck hunting season in March this year, but it has come under pressure from across the political divide to pursue WA, NSW and QLD and ban the sport altogether.

“There is no excuse for duck hunters to continue using toxic bullets, and poachers caught doing so will be fined, their equipment confiscated, their licenses revoked and they face prosecution,” a government spokesperson said.

Lead poisoning can lead to a ‘horrifyingly slow death’ for birds

Lethal amounts of lead have been found in protected species in Victoria, according to Jordan Hampton of the University of Melbourne’s School of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences.

“It is alarming that the birds of prey with the highest levels of lead exposure detected in Australia were wedge-tailed vultures from Victoria,” he said.

“If the shot animal is left in place, the lead fragments become a threat to any wildlife litter.

“Leads do not disappear, and the ammunition fired today will remain in our environment for decades to come.”

Lisa Palma, chief executive of Wildlife Victoria, said lead poisoning was an insidious way of dying ducks, swans and wedge-tailed eagles.

“They suffer a horribly slow death whether they are injured or fed on bullet-ridden corpses,” she said.

“They develop neurological symptoms and paralysis, are sluggish and unable to eat and are slowly dying of starvation.”

The duck hunting group says they have zero tolerance for breaking the rules

The Victorian Duck Hunters Association’s secretary, Kev Gummers, said he was shocked to learn that hunters still use lead ammunition, more than two decades after it was banned.

“We don’t condone this at all,” he said, “and I don’t know anyone who would be stupid enough to use bullets.”

“We have zero tolerance for anyone in our organization who breaks these rules, it goes against what we stand for.”

A brown duck with a blue head swimming in the water.
Ducks and other wild animals can get fatal diseases if they are exposed to bullet fragments from ammunition.(ABC News: Daniel Bonica)

Hampton, who is also a veterinarian, said more needs to be done to protect the environment, animals and humans, as lead ammunition is still legal for quail hunting, commercial harvesting, and aerial shooting.

“There is a simple and immediate solution — we need to ban all bullet ammunition — not just ducks,” Hampton said.

“This didn’t hurt the auto industry when unleaded fuels were introduced.”