- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 24, 2008

Fishermen, anglers, trollers. Rod and reel in hand, they have now joined the ranks of the environmentally conscious.

“If you go into a sporting-goods store, every soft-plastic fishing lure on the wall gets lost in the environment. And that’s a staggering thought,” said Ben Hobbins, a fishing aficionado in Waunakee, Wis.

Indeed, the squishy faux worm and frog population found in the typical tackle box are brilliantly colored and soft as marshmallow. Lunkers love them. Collectors treasure them. Yet some 12,000 tons of these pliable but fragile lures — about 25 million a year — now end up as “plastic waste” on the bottom of American’s lakes and streams, dragged from their hooks by eager fish or the tug of passing vegetation.

Troubled by the phenomenon, Mr. Hobbins was determined to develop a “sustainable” fishing lure. After almost two years of research and the help of mechanical engineers at the University of Wisconsin’s Polymer Engineering Center, he will have his eureka moment today. The fisherman-turned-inventor will present his new line of “Iron-Clad” reusable lures at the 2008 Bassmaster Classic on Lake Hartwell, near Greenville, S.C.

He found his solution in fiber. The worms, shrimp and other lure shapes have been reinforced with resilient microfiber. And while the lures are still made of plastic, they use less of it. Mr. Hobbins and his team are now exploring “environmentally benign materials,” plus future alternate applications for the super-soft stuff — including golf-club grips, ladder hand-holds and gun grips.

“It’s comparable to the ‘use-and-lose’ soft-plastic lures currently on the market. But these are nearly indestructible,” Mr. Hobbins said. “It stops soft-plastic waste in the environment. And that is substantial in itself. Anglers never wanted to drop the plastic, but that’s all there was.”

Fishing tackle — hooks, lines and sinkers, not to mention nets — have joined the roster of environmentally hazardous materials, and are the subject of many a cautionary tale and strident solution. The bottom of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee is crowded with enough lost soft lures to “cushion a tank dropped from a plane,” according to Bill Laflamme, an environmental scientist with the state of Maine.

The Pacific Whale Foundation, meanwhile, maintains that 100,000 tons of fishing line and other gear are dumped in the world’s oceans each year. The problem of “marine debris” is so acute that NOAA now uses satellites to track great flotillas of what they term “ghost nets,” discarded by private and commercial fishing operations alike. The federal agency also operates a strict debris-abatement program.

Minnesota, Wisconsin, Indiana and other states now sponsor tackle-exchange programs, hoping their anglers will use sinkers and swivels that contain no lead or zinc. Florida offers an official fishing-line recycling program.

The fishing public can at least quell their environmental guilt with biodegradable baits.

Iowa-based Berkley Fishing is among the manufacturers offering intensely scented artificial bait, including worms, leeches, minnows and assorted delectable preparations that the company says is 100 percent biodegradable. The line includes jars of “Crappie Nibbles” and “Trout Dough,” which comes in such imaginative varieties as “apple pie,” “chunky cheese” and “marshmallow cluster.”

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