By Donald Wittkowski
Calling it more educational than punitive, Sea Isle City took the first step Tuesday toward banning the release of balloons as a way to protect sea life and the environment.
The draft ordinance was reviewed by City Council and is expected to be formally introduced at the governing body’s next meeting on Sept. 12.
Acknowledging the potential harm that plastic litter can cause to turtles and other marine life, Sea Isle is looking to join several other coastal communities in Atlantic and Cape May counties that have already banned balloon launches.
Sea Isle’s proposed ordinance also includes a ban on releasing the so-called sky lanterns, which are illuminated by candles and are considered a fire hazard when they fall to earth.
“The intentional release of balloons inflated with helium or other objects that are inflated with gases that are lighter than air, sky lanterns or similar airborne devices become dangerous pieces of litter, create a serious fire and safety hazard and may cause harm to animals,” the ordinance says.
Violators would face a maximum penalty of a $500 fine, but Sea Isle officials stressed that they are not looking to crack down with a heavy-handed ordinance. Instead of paying a fine, violators 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.
“The emphasis is more on education than enforcing penalties,” City Solicitor Paul Baldini, who drafted the ordinance, told the Council members during their meeting Tuesday.
Baldini noted that the ordinance is aimed at stopping the intentional mass release of balloons and sky lanterns during weddings and other organized events.
“It’s really not geared toward the individual,” he said.
The city has no desire to clamp down on the incidental release of a small number of balloons, particularly if children are involved, Baldini pointed out. He said “little Junior” and his parents would not have to worry about the police knocking on their door if a few balloons were accidentally released at a birthday party, for instance.
“The last thing you want to do is bring someone in after a birthday party and say, ‘Three balloons got released,’” Baldini said in an interview after the Council meeting.
Mass balloon releases 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.
Once they fall into the ocean or bays, the deflated plastic balloons are 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 starve to death.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 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.
Sea Isle’s proposed ordinance is modeled after similar bans on balloon launches previously approved by a number of neighboring coastal communities. However, Sea Isle’s ban would differ 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, Baldini said.
In Cape May County, Avalon and Cape May ban balloon launches, while Stone Harbor is in the midst of adopting a similar ordinance. In Atlantic County, towns banning the mass release of balloons include Atlantic City, Longport, Margate, Ventnor and Somers Point.
Ocean City discussed the possibility of banning balloon launches this year, but instead settled on a public awareness campaign headed by the town’s Environmental Commission to warn of the dangers to turtles and other sea life.
The Ocean City Environmental Commission has printed a one-page fact sheet headlined with the words, “Balloons can kill wildlife!” It includes photos of animals that died after they ate balloons or became entangled in the string.