Toss Graduation Hats But Hold Balloons

Escaped Balloons Can Harm Sea Birds
By MARIA SCANDALE | Jun 12, 2019
Photo by: Ben Wurst

Long Beach Island — The same time of year that’s a celebration for kids starting out in their lives can be a danger to the lives of sea birds and sea creatures when graduation balloons launch into the environment.

Ben Wurst of Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey sees firsthand what happens: birds’ feet become entangled in the attached ribbon. Balloon debris ends up on land and in water, and birds and marine life can choke on pieces of the burst balloon itself.

There are some shorelines in particular where currents carry released, escaped or burst balloons, and one is at the end of Great Bay Boulevard, right inside Little Egg Inlet. Holgate is another; parts of Island Beach State Park are washup sites as well. So are “tons of places in the marsh” in general, and along beaches. “I don’t think we could rule out anywhere,” Wurst said.

“This is the time of year when I’m out in the field, finding a lot of balloons, and they say ‘Congratulations, graduate,’ he said.

Some schools don’t do mass releases of balloons, with nature in mind; Southern Regional and Pinelands Regional districts do not. Conservation organizations are trying to educate individuals to think that way as well. “Or maybe some of them just got away from people,” Wurst surmised. “Whether intentional or unintentional, the effects are the same.”

Wurst noted televised events, parties, memorial services, gender reveal birth announcements and more occasions where balloon releases are intentional.

“They’re pretty prevalent, and they don’t disappear like some people like to believe – marketers, lobbyists for the balloon industry. They go up and come back down into the atmosphere.”

In the international news last month was a study stating that balloons are the number one killer of sea birds. That’s even though they are not hard plastic.

“A hard piece of plastic has to be the absolute wrong shape and size to block a region in the birds’ gut, whereas soft rubber items can contort to get stuck,” Lauren Roman, a marine scientist at the University of Tasmania and lead author of the study, told ABC News.

“When they first land in the water they could be eaten or chewed on or bitten by sea life,” Wurst said, “first sea turtles or seabirds and once they wash up on land birds could become entangled in the ribbon.

“For ospreys, the ribbon is pretty much the most deadly part. What we know happens with floating debris, it washes up on the shoreline and collects in the wrack line with seaweed or phragmites or reeds, or ends up on the high marsh, and that’s where these birds go to collect nesting material.”

The “osprey cam” in Barnegat Light caught a colored ribbon in the nest with its real-time video filming. Wurst climbed a ladder and removed it. Another nest at Island Beach State Park last week had the ribbon entangling birds’ legs.

“They might grab some eelgrass and some stray ribbon with it and unfortunately, that comes right into the nest with the eelgrass,” Wurst said.

Plastic bags or plastic sheeting also has bad impact, potentially smothering nestlings. On the Mullica River, two osprey nests had “giant streams of black sheeting,” Wurst described. “Last year we had a nestling hanging from a channel marker by monofilament in Cape May Harbor. And near Tuckerton last year, in Great Bay, there was one chick that had its foot wrapped up in a plastic mesh clam bag.”

Among the first municipalities to ban the intentional release of helium balloons was Long Beach Township. Helium-filled balloons can travel far into the ocean. Several organizations have been involved in efforts to promote more environmentally friendly alternatives, including those on the website

The Lauren Roman study suggested that even when balloons are marked “biodegradable” on the package, they can take six months to a year to biodegrade, especially in seawater that acts as a preservative. It noted that latex is derived from rubber trees, but in products, chemicals may be added that prevent degrading, and mylar balloons, made of a metallic plastic, does not break down.

Wurst added that jute twine is a more environmentally friendly alternative to use as the strings of biodegradable balloons, for those who feel they have to have balloons.

— Maria Scandale


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