High-flying Balloons Pose a Definite Downside for Ocean Wildlife

Balloons that soar eventually fall, with serious impacts for wildlife.
Credit: Jerry Downs flickr stream

What’s more joyful than the sight of colorful balloons soaring up into the blue sky? People release festive bunches of them for lots of reasons, including to

  • celebrate birthdays, weddings and anniversaries
  • commemorate the passing of a loved one
  • inspire excitement at sporting events
  • announce the opening of a business or a super sales event

And sometimes they simply escape our grasp and go skyward.

What goes up must come down
Alas, balloons eventually fall back to Earth. That’s when the dark side of their existence begins. When balloons and their ribbons or strings fall or blow into the ocean and waterways, wildlife can suffer and die.

“Like many other forms of synthetic debris, balloons can resemble prey and pose a threat to all kinds  of marine organisms around the world, many of which are threatened or endangered,” says Ocean Conservancy Marine Debris Specialist Nicholas Mallos.

Trash in the water, including balloons, affects more than 260 species worldwide.
Animals, birds and fish get sick or choke when they eat balloon fragments and plastic valves and attachments.  Many others marine animals drown when they get entangled in trailing ribbon or string.

Pictures tell the grim story, along with scientific research like this:

Ocean Conservancy promotes solutions
Ocean Conservancy and volunteers all around the world have worked together to help identify this wildlife threat by tracking balloons (along with other ocean trash) for more than 25 years through the International Coastal Cleanup.

Last year alone, volunteers picked up 93,913 balloons littering waterways and the ocean. We’re proud of our long history of putting numbers like that to use promoting positive change for the sea.

For example, back in 1990, International Coastal Cleanup volunteers picked up an astounding 30 pounds of balloons along Virginia’s Assateague Island on the Atlantic Ocean on just one day.

Analysts found that the balloons—many imprinted with the names of businesses or events—came from 52 sources in six states.

Ocean Conservancy presented the data—and the balloons—to the Virginia Assembly, and in 1991 the state legislature passed a law prohibiting mass balloon releases. Today releasing big quantities of balloons is against the law in a number of places.

Enjoy balloons – but hold on
Like many of the volunteers who help run the International Coastal Cleanup, Virginia Coordinator Katie Register of Clean Virginia Waterways works hard to raise awareness about ocean trash— including balloons.

“Go ahead and celebrate—but now that you know the down side, just make sure balloons don’t become litter,” says Register. “There are easy solutions, like attaching weights to the ribbon to keep a balloon from going into the sky if a child lets go.”

As word spreads around the world, hopefully more people will choose to mark their celebrations in ways that don’t harm ocean life. In the United Kingdom, for example, International Coastal Cleanup Coordinator Lauren Davis works for the Marine Conservation Society, which runs an education program called “Don’t Let Go.”

“There are so many positive emotions attached to balloon releases that sometimes it’s hard to get people to understand,” says Register, who recommends options that allow for safe disposal of balloons—or better yet, celebratory actions that don’t generate any trash.

Here are a few:

  • Drop balloons downward in a festive cascade in gyms, churches or ballrooms.
  • Plant a tree.
  • Donate a book to the library.
  • Blow bubbles.

You can help protect wildlife and our ocean by growing the worldwide movement for trash free seas. Be mindful of ways you can properly dispose of trash in your daily life. Reduce as much as you can. And join like-minded ocean lovers around the world for the upcoming International Coastal Cleanup on September 15.

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