By Donald Wittkowski
Whatever happened to just throwing hats into the air in celebration?
The mass release of balloons, floating lanterns, doves and even butterflies has become an increasingly popular way to provide a picture-perfect ending at weddings, graduations, birthday parties and other festive events.
But some people seem to have forgotten one thing: What goes up, must come down.
Ocean City Councilwoman Karen Bergman is concerned that deflated balloons and lanterns will end up as litter on the beaches or may fall into the ocean and harm marine life.
Bergman believes the city should consider putting formal rules in place to regulate – if not ban – the mass release of balloons and lanterns to protect the seashore environment.
“I think we have to do something,” she said. “When you talk about releasing 100 balloons or lanterns, they can go all over the beaches or out over the ocean.”
Following up on a discussion city officials first had in February, Bergman questioned Mayor Jay Gillian during Thursday night’s City Council meeting whether Ocean City should pass an ordinance banning the mass release of balloons and lanterns.
Gillian noted that his administration has been working with the city’s Environmental Commission on an education program to make people aware of the environmental dangers posed by balloons and lanterns. He added he is leaning toward having an education program instead of imposing formal regulations or an outright ban.
“But there aren’t any rules. That’s my point,” Bergman responded to Gillian.
Bergman said there is public confusion over whether mass launches of balloons and 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.
“I’m just hearing people being confused about this,” Bergman said in an interview Friday.
At Thursday’s meeting, Gillian promised Bergman that his administration will “do some homework” and get back to Council with more information about balloon and lantern launches.
“It’s absolutely something we should talk about,” he said.
With those assurances from the mayor, Bergman said she is content for now to wait for more details about the city’s education program in collaboration with the Environmental Commission.
In the meantime, Gillian said Ocean City has already taken steps to protect the environment by dramatically cutting down on using balloons during city events, such as the annual Night in Venice boat parade that attracts thousands of visitors to town.
Ocean City officials have been debating whether to join the neighboring shore towns of Atlantic City, Margate, Longport and Ventnor in banning the mass release of helium balloons.
Bergman and fellow Council members Michael DeVlieger and Tony Wilson have publicly expressed interest in studying the balloon ordinances approved by those towns to see if a similar ban would be appropriate for Ocean City.
DeVlieger and Bergman both stressed that they are not opposed to balloon sales. Bergman also has made it clear that she has no desire to crack down on the incidental release of a small number of balloons, particularly if children are involved.
Members of the environmental group Surfrider Foundation of South Jersey have appeared before City Council in recent months to urge Ocean City to ban the mass release of balloons.
They said 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.
They also explained that 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.
On its website, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 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 warns.