Recently the natural resources department of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) was honored at the state house as a Champion of Toxics Use Reduction for our lead-free Vineyard fishing project, which encouraged fishermen to adopt non-lead tackle.

The tribe was proud to be honored, and the tribal council and I would like to thank our Island partners in the project. The Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby, as well as all the participating tackle shops — Coop’s, Dick’s, Larry’s, Captain Porky’s, Shark’s Landing, and Menemsha Texaco — were integral to the success of this project.

The Wampanoag tribe has been fishing the waters of Martha’s Vineyard for thousands of years, and the lives and livelihoods of tribal members have long depended on the fish, shellfish, birds and animals the Island and the seas have provided. Recognizing the importance of the ocean environment, the tribe partnered with the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at University of Massachusetts at Lowell, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby to encourage fishermen to use lead alternative products while fishing.

Lead is a potent toxin that can have health effects in children and adults even in small doses. Wildlife, particularly waterfowl such as loons, but also marine mammals and fish, are frequently poisoned by the lead anglers lose while fishing. Experienced Island fishermen often report finding lead weights in the stomachs of the fish they catch. Anglers who mold their own weights are exposed to particularly high levels of lead.

The derby is one of the premier fishing contests on the East Coast, and last September each of the roughly 2,500 derby participants received a packet with information about the dangers of lead to human health and the environment. The packet also contained two lead-free weights for fishermen to use: a one-ounce steel weight, and a two to three-ounce weight made from natural stone similar to the ones Wampanoag fishermen have been using for thousands of years. The tribe hopes to work with the derby again this year on this issue, but it’s everyone’s responsibility to get the lead out of fishing. We encourage each person who wets a line to use easily available non-lead alternatives, especially when fishing with children.

The derby project generated much positive discussion and interest among commercial and recreational fishermen and women, but this is not the only program the natural resources department administers to reduce lead exposure. The department works with tackle shops and charter captains to spread the word about lead in fishing tackle, and also promotes lead-free fishing with tribal members and at events like the kids’ trout derby in May. In addition, the Wampanoag Environmental Laboratory maintains state and national certifications to analyze lead in water, soil and paint. These resources are used to assist our membership and the community with health risks associated with lead exposure and hazards.

The lead-free Vineyard fishing project is also just one of the tribe’s many natural resources programs that improve the environment and environmental health of the tribal membership and the Island as a whole. These programs have provided millions of dollars of environmental benefits for the Island economy. In recent years, the tribe has helped develop, print, and distribute 45,000 copies of the water-protection handbook The Island Blue Pages, and had it translated into Portuguese for our Brazilian community. The tribe’s bay scallop restoration project resulted in a tremendous increase in the Menemsha Pond scallop harvest for the last three years. The tribe has donated two ambulances with annual financial support to the town of Aquinnah and maintains air and water quality monitoring programs which safeguard our watersheds and aquifer. The tribal conservation programs remove invasive weeds, improve water quality, and reduce waste.

The tribe and its natural resources department will continue to do our best to live lightly on the land and water, and we hope everyone who calls this Island home will join us.


Cheryl Andrews-Maltais is chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah).