By Donald Wittkowski
Those balloons that are launched during birthday parties, weddings, graduations and other celebrations don’t simply float away harmlessly into the upper atmosphere, never to be seen again.
Acknowledging the potential harm to marine life and the environment, Ocean City will consider joining three other nearby shore towns that already ban the mass release of helium balloons.
At least three members of City Council, Karen Bergman, Michael DeVlieger and Tony Wilson, have expressed interest in studying the balloon ordinances approved by Margate, Longport and Ventnor to see if a similar ban would be appropriate for Ocean City.
Speaking during Council’s meeting Thursday night, Bergman called mass balloon launchings “detrimental” to the environment and sea creatures.
“I think 40 balloons going into the air at the same time is not good for marine life,” she said.
Bergman stressed that she has no desire to crack down on the incidental release of a small number of balloons, particularly if children were involved.
Although Ocean City may consider banning the mass release of balloons, it would not look to prohibit their sale, DeVlieger noted.
“We’re not against the sale. We’re against the mass release,” he said in an interview after the Council meeting.
Wilson suggested that Council should work with the Ocean City Environmental Commission to study the issue in more depth.
The Environmental Commission’s chairman, Marty Mozzo, told Council that he objects to prohibiting balloon launches. He said he would prefer to educate the public about the environmental threat caused by mass balloon launches instead of imposing an outright ban.
“Education is the key thing, more than enforcement,” Mozzo said.
Mayor Jay Gillian, who also spoke during the Council meeting, did not say whether he would support or oppose a balloon ban. But Gillian did agree with Mozzo that a public education campaign should be a big part of “whatever we bring forward.”
Margate, Longport and Ventnor, all beach towns on Absecon Island close to Ocean City, have put teeth in their laws by including a $500 fine for violating their ban on mass balloon launches. Atlantic City’s Council has introduced a similar measure, but has not yet taken a final vote to approve it.
Environmentalists say 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.
Carol Jones, a Tuckahoe resident and volunteer with the environmental group Surfrider Foundation of South Jersey, has appeared before City Council in recent months to urge Ocean City to ban the mass release of balloons.
Jones said balloons can drift far out over the ocean before they finally fall into the water. She recalled seeing one turtle swallow a deflated balloon while she and her late husband were about 1,000 miles out on the Atlantic while on a sailing trip to Europe.
“Those balloons travel far and last a long time,” Jones said in an interview Friday.
Birds also are endangered by balloons, explained Bill Stuempfig, an Ocean City resident who is a bird-banding volunteer with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s Division of Fish and Wildlife.
Stuempfig, who is Jones’ boyfriend, said birds can become entangled in the ribbons or strings attached to balloons, similar to the way they are snarled in discarded fishing line.
“I’ve recovered four different birds in the last four or five years that were entangled in ribbon,” he said.
He also pointed out that deflated balloons can end up as litter, clogging bird nets or covering the birds themselves, including the chicks.
“I see balloons in the nests a lot and take them out,” Stuempfig said.
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.