By Donald Wittkowski
Ocean City’s Environmental Commission is planning a new public awareness campaign to warn of the dangers posed by balloons to shore birds, turtles and other wildlife.
Instead of advocating for a new law to ban mass balloon launches, the commission hopes that a kinder, gentler approach will be a more effective way to educate the public about the environmental hazards.
“Everyone thinks it’s neat to release balloons, not realizing that they can do harm to animals. But what goes up, must come down,” said Marty Mozzo, the commission chairman.
The commission has drafted what Mozzo called a simple, one-page fact sheet that describes just how dangerous deflated or popped balloons can be to wildlife. It includes photos of animals killed by balloons after they ate them, he noted.
Voting unanimously, the commission approved the fact sheet at its board meeting Tuesday. Mozzo next will show it to Mayor Jay Gillian and City Business Administrator Jim Mallon for their approval before it is made public.
Mozzo said he prefers to educate the public about the environmental threat posed by balloons instead of pushing for a new law that would ban their mass release.
“We felt that a simple facts sheet on balloon releases would have more of a far-reaching impact,” he said.
He believes the public education campaign would be particularly effective during the summer tourism season, when the city’s population swells from around 11,000 year-round residents to an estimated 150,000 visitors.
“Those people who come to town as summer tourists don’t know what our laws are,” Mozzo said. “They’re here to have fun. They don’t want to sit down and read our ordinance book.”
Recently, members of City Council have debated whether Ocean City should join the neighboring seashore communities of Atlantic City, Margate, Ventnor and Longport in banning the mass release of balloons.
Ocean City Councilwoman Karen Bergman said there is public confusion over whether mass launches of balloons and floating lanterns – and even more exotic things such as butterflies – are safe and legal. She believes regulations would clarify the issue, as well as help protect the environment.
Bergman stressed she has no desire to crack down on the incidental release of a small number of balloons, particularly if children are involved.
At a Council meeting in March, the mayor promised Bergman that his administration will “do some homework” and get back to the governing body with more information about balloon launches.
After getting those assurances from Gillian, Bergman said she is content for now to wait for more details about the city’s education program in collaboration with the Environmental Commission.
Doug Bergen, a spokesman for Gillian, indicated that “the consensus seems to be education” rather than passing a new law banning mass balloon releases.
“Education can be as effective as the law,” Bergen said. “Any time you pass a law, there’s a question of enforcement.”
In the meantime, Ocean City has already taken steps to protect the environment by “totally discouraging” the use of balloons during one of its major tourist attractions, the annual Night in Venice boat parade, Bergen said.
Night in Venice contestants are instructed in an application form not to use balloons to decorate their homes or boats, according to Bergen.
However, members of the environmental group Surfrider Foundation of South Jersey want the city to do more. They have appeared before City Council in recent months to lobby for a complete ban on mass balloon releases in Ocean City.
They explained that turtles and other sea creatures often mistake deflated balloons floating on the water as jellyfish and try to eat them, which can block their digestive systems and cause them to starve to death.
Birds can become entangled in the ribbons or strings attached to balloons, similar to the way they are snarled in discarded fishing line. Deflated balloons can also end up as litter, clogging bird nets or covering the birds themselves, including the chicks, according to the Surfrider Foundation.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service also has warned the public about the harm balloons can do to the environment. On its website, the agency tells the public: “Please don’t release your balloons.”
“Balloons are great at birthdays, weddings, graduations and more, but once they get loose, balloons can pose a threat to many animals,” the Fish & Wildlife Service says.