By Donald Wittkowski
Acknowledging the potential harm that plastic litter can cause to turtles and other marine life, Sea Isle City is looking to join several other Jersey Shore communities that have already banned balloon launches.
By a 5-0 vote, Sea Isle’s City Council introduced an ordinance Tuesday that bans the mass release of balloons as well as floating lanterns illuminated by candles. Before it can become law, the measure will come up for a public hearing and final vote at the Oct. 10 Council meeting.
The 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, City Solicitor Paul Baldini said.
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.
“Other towns around the area and throughout the state, actually, are doing it,” Sea Isle Council President Mary Tighe said. “It really has to do with intentionally releasing a large amount of balloons or the sky lanterns.”
Sea Isle 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.
“We want to nip it in the bud,” Feeley said, noting that he once had a sky lantern fall on his property.
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 said.
Feeley characterized the ban as being more educational than punitive. Violators 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, 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.
“I doubt a fine will ever get issued,” Feeley said.
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. Tighe raised the same concerns when Council introduced the balloon ban Tuesday.
“Balloons certainly go long distances and end up in our bays, in our oceans, and harm our wildlife out there,” she said.
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 also includes a ban on releasing sky lanterns or “similar airborne devices,” which are illuminated by candles and are considered a fire hazard when they fall to earth.
“There’s been issues with the sky lanterns. They don’t necessarily burn out the way they’re supposed to by themselves,” Tighe said. “They end up in our marshlands and catch them on fire.”