By Donald Wittkowski
Joining other Jersey Shore towns that have taken similar action to protect the environment, Sea Isle City is banning the mass release of balloons in hopes of reducing the amount of plastic litter that falls into the ocean and can be fatal to sea life.
By a 5-0 vote, City Council gave final approval Tuesday to a new ordinance that prohibits the launching of balloons as well as the so-called sky lanterns that are illuminated by candles and become a fire hazard when they fall to earth.
Councilman J.B. Feeley, who initially proposed the ban, said the measure is aimed at stopping the intentional mass release of balloons and sky lanterns during weddings and other organized events.
Environmentalists warn that once the deflated balloons fall into the ocean or bays, the plastic is often mistaken as food. Turtles and other sea creatures think the shiny balloons are jellyfish and try to eat them, which can block their digestive systems and cause them to die.
“I’m sure no one wants to kill turtles, porpoises or dolphins,” Feeley said.
Feeley stressed that Sea Isle’s new ordinance should not be viewed by the public as a heavy-handed crackdown on balloons. He doubted anyone will actually be fined for releasing balloons unless there are blatant violations.
Violators of the balloon ordinance would face a maximum fine of $500, but will have the opportunity of avoiding financial penalties as part of the ordinance. Instead of paying a fine, they would have the option of working with the Sea Isle City Environmental Commission on a program to educate the public about the dangers of releasing balloons or sky lanterns.
“This is an ordinance that’s mostly designed for educational purposes for the public,” said Paul Baldini, Sea Isle’s solicitor.
At the same time, Sea Isle has no plans to clamp down on the incidental release of a small number of balloons, particularly if children are involved, Feeley and Baldini said.
“Certainly, it’s not going to affect the little child who has a balloon and it gets away from him and winds up in the ocean. That’s not the purpose of the ordinance,” Baldini said during Tuesday’s Council meeting.
Mass balloon launches have become an ever-popular way of celebrating special events ranging from weddings to birthdays to graduations, but environmentalists have repeatedly warned of the potential harm to animals and sea life. A number of Jersey Shore communities have embraced those concerns in the past year by passing local laws that ban the mass release of balloons.
In Cape May County, Avalon, Cape May and Stone Harbor ban balloon launches. In Atlantic County, towns banning the release of balloons include Atlantic City, Longport, Margate, Ventnor and Somers Point.
Sea Isle’s ban, though, differs slightly from ordinances in other towns by placing the local Environmental Commission in charge of developing and overseeing a public education program to warn of the dangers of balloon and sky lantern releases.
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.