My shorebird work has led me to numerous places. I have been blessed to call Nantucket, Cape Cod, the Outer Banks, and San Diego my summer homes. Living and breathing the beach has opened my eyes to the fluxes and vibrancies of natural cycles and ephemeral coastal tendencies. Water levels change, sands shift, shorebirds come and go, lightning bugs flicker on and off, Rosa rigosa experiences a brief bloom. However, the one thing that withstands every hurricane, outlasts every plover nesting season, and persists through every ray of sunlight? Balloons.
I am eager to devote this blog entry to balloons, because while most people recognize that plastics can seriously degrade the health of ecosystems and are often fatal to wildlife and can even end up in our own bellies, microscopically, I don’t think enough people have embraced balloons as a contributor to the plastics problem.
Over the course of five field seasons, I would estimate that my co-workers and I have picked up thousands of balloons. The numbers are heartbreaking and cringing and bring me to the verge of tears just writing this. Last month, I decided that the best thing I can do to keep balloon pieces out of seabird, fish, reptile, and marine mammal bellies is to raise awareness about the numbers of balloons I am finding.
I believe that such large numbers pose a threat to conservation efforts. If we reserve habitat for wildlife but fail to keep it clean, we are back-peddling. Therefore, not only do we need to set aside the acreage, but we also need to make sure it is clean, abundant with life, and thriving! My hope is that sharing what I have seen will make people think twice about setting balloons free.
The following numbers are for your personal reflection:
Between June 13 and July 7, 2014 (25 days), I picked up 67 balloons on a very short stretch of beach in Coronado:
37 blank or discolored balloons
8 Graduation balloons
6 Birthday balloons
6 Cartoon balloons
4 Mother’s Day balloons
2 Love balloons
1 Newborn baby balloon
1 I’m sorry balloon
1 Sports team balloon
1 July 4th balloon
While balloons disintegrate into very small pieces, they do not degrade and purely breakdown the way, say, a banana peel does. These small pieces go on to be accidentally ingested by fish. Least terns, one of the species that we are strongly aiming to conserve, eat small fish they catch in the bay, the ocean surf, and farther out at sea.
Although we are not all specially trained to work with these birds in their natural habitats, we ARE all capable of not releasing balloons and also picking up trash as we stroll along the beaches, catch a beautiful sunset, enjoy dolphins in the surf, and listen to the sweet chitter of terns and seabirds fishing for their young.
Whether you are a construction worker, a lawyer, a photographer, or a camp instructor, you have the power to make an incredible difference for these birds.
Mara Plato is a research associate with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.