Jerry Tupacz saw the ribbon first, dangling from the mouth of a petrel frantically flapping on the beach at Cape Island, one of the remotest islands in the remote Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service bio-technician was out on a sea turtle nest watch patrol last summer. The bird was too distressed to ignore, too desperate to fly off when Tupacz approached to pick it up. The ribbon, as it turned out, hadn't entangled the bird. The ribbon had been swallowed.
"I pulled and pulled and pulled and along came a string of shriveled-up, bright red balloons," Tupacz said. The bird died two hours later; Tupacz couldn't say if the balloons played a role in killing it. But the problem is endemic, he said. "We pick up balloons every day. I can easily pick up two or three or four balloons on that island any day of the summer."
How do they get there? Cape Romain -- the island grounds for more than 1,000 sea turtle nests each summer -- is so directly downstream of predominant summer winds in the Charleston area that the state has placed an air-pollution monitor there. Sea turtles, among other wildlife, will eat shriveled or exploded rubber balloons; they look like jellyfish.
That is the nub of conservationists' concern for balloon releases. The concern has become so widespread that balloon companies have formed The Balloon Council to fight restrictive laws and argue for the relative safety of properly handled balloon releases.
The council plans to lobby against a bill in the state Legislature that would restrict the release of balloons to 20 per hour, exempting bio-degradable and research balloons, to protect the state reptile, the loggerhead turtle, as well as other wildlife. The bill was prompted by a fifth-grade class in the Upstate.
Balloon Council members say that latex, or rubber, balloons do biodegrade, and are relatively benign, so long as they are released unattached and without strings.
"The bill brings no real benefit to the environment, while delivering a financial blow to many small business," said Noah Lichtman, council spokesman, in an e-mail. Lichtman adds that balloons degrade about as fast as an oak leaf. "While some animals may chew latex balloons, the balloon industry and other researchers have found no evidence that balloons have ever caused the death of a sea creature."
Wildlife biologists don't necessarily agree. The Sea Turtle Foundation estimates that 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million sea birds die every year from ingesting or becoming entangled in marine debris, including indigestible plastic that blocks stomachs.
Directly tying a death to a balloon is difficult, biologists say. But sea turtles and other wildlife have been found starved to death with latex balloons blocking their stomachs.
The shelf life of a rotting oak leaf is two years or more, said Kelly Thorvalson South Carolina Aquarium sea turtle hospital manager. "Balloons can do a great deal of harm in that time period."
Jill Shortreed of the Charleston Balloon Co. said her company adheres to strict no-string, biodegradable and other precautions in balloons it sells for release. The stigma comes from sellers and buyers who don't, she said. A latex balloon released without being weighed down travels high enough before it explodes that it's little more than shreds when it falls.
"Is it a 100 percent perfect scenario? No," she conceded, but it's relatively safe.
Billy McCord, recently retired from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, spent years patrolling isolated hammock islands along the coast. Balloons don't seem to be as pervasive a threat as other litter, such as plastic shopping bags, he said. He didn't see many latex balloon remnants, but would regularly find metallic, or foil, balloons back in the woods away from the beach.
"It's kind of sad that you can be fined for littering if a napkin flies out the window, but you can (legally) release a helium-filled balloon," he said.
"We have to recognize that any actions taken, even small ones, can potentially have impacts," said Bob Perry, DNR environmental program director. The impact of balloon releases on the environment has not been measured in the state, or anywhere on the East Coast that he is aware of, he said. "We'd like to know what the real impact would be."
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744.
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