Stanley Larsen, owner of Menemsha Fish Market, has been catching more than seafood on his early-morning fishing trips. He’s been collecting balloons, and not of the celebratory variety.
Mr. Larsen said he picks hundreds of soggy plastic party favors out of the water in a season. On the dock last Thursday, Mr. Larsen ducked into his boat and returned holding a bundle of curling rainbow strings with partially deflated balloons, still rising into the air with the wind.
“They are just blowing along the water or floating,” Mr. Larsen said. “I try to turn the boat toward them and go scoop them up.”
Despite holding six balloons in his hands, Mr. Larsen said that it was nothing compared with his catch one day earlier.
“Today there were a few out there, but yesterday I couldn’t believe how many were out there,” he said. “I think maybe just the way the wind was blowing, a strong southerly wind, and they were all blowing in from the ocean.”
Mr. Larsen said that strong currents can look more like a stream of plastic.
“When you get out in some areas and there’s a current, like the one from here to Block Island, N.Y., sometimes along that current there’s just a line of them,” he said. “And there’s other kinds of plastics too, plastic bags and things like that.”
Mr. Larsen has been in the fishing business since he was a kid, and he’s been going out on the water to catch fish for as long as he can remember. Catching balloons, however, has only become a part of his routine in the past few years.
“I don’t remember seeing that many like that when I was a kid,” he said. “There are so many out there. I started noticing them a couple years ago.”
He is specifically concerned that the deflated balloons with their dangling strings can look like jellyfish. Turtles eat jellyfish, and can die if they consume the plastic inflatables. He said the message about balloon pollution needs to be shared, especially with the Fourth of July holiday coming up.
“Just everybody share the message up and down the coast,” he said. “It’s pollution, it’s littering; they’re littering the ocean.”
Luanne Johnson, wildlife biologist and director of Biodiversity Works on Martha’s Vineyard, shared Mr. Larsen’s concern.
“Certain animals, like the very large leatherback turtles in our waters that are pretty common, can eat them by mistake thinking they are jellyfish, and they die from that,” she said. “And we do have leatherbacks wash up dead on our beaches. And then there’s animals that get tangled in the strings.”
She said there’s already several organizations on the Island addressing this problem.
“If we, Biodiversity Works, weren’t out there cleaning the beaches regularly, or the staff from Felix Neck that monitor beaches, or The Trustees of Reservations, all these people that are out working on the beaches, if we weren’t out there regularly picking up balloons, there would be a lot of balloon pollution on this Island,” Ms. Johnson said. “People don’t realize it as much, because we pick it up.”
She said that the staff at Biodiversity Works often walks off the beach with handfuls of balloons. It’s become a regular activity for the staff to pick up the balloons, due to their hazardous nature for marine wildlife.
“By the end of summer, we usually fill a large trash can with just balloons,” she said. “Which is a lot of balloons, actually.”
Ms. Johnson said an awareness campaign to address the issue could be very successful on the Vineyard.
She said whether the balloons are coming from the Island or the mainland doesn’t matter.
“Every time a balloon is released, it’s drifting somewhere else,” she said. “So whenever balloons are released here, they’re becoming someone else’s problem.”
But she is certain that some of the balloons are coming from on-Island.
“I do see balloons from Martha’s Vineyard, with Vineyard purple colors, during graduation,” Ms. Johnson said. “Maybe those didn’t get very far, but I have no doubt in my mind that people are releasing balloons on this Island.”
To Ms. Johnson, the solution is quite simple. “Balloon pollution is so unnecessary,” she said. “It’s something that we can easily stop. It’s just as simple as don’t ever release balloons, ever. And maybe just don’t buy them.”
Nantucket balloon ban
Nantucket passed a ban on helium balloons in April. Scott Leonard, director of operations at the Nantucket Marine Mammal Conservation Program, played a leading role in getting the bylaw passed on the Island.
He said the trifecta for banning “lighter-than-air” balloons is “the most obvious,” visible pollution, “the least obvious,” helium depletion, and the most “heart- and soul-connecting,” animal mortality “and the horrendous suffering that these human expressions of joy impart on our fellow creatures.”
Mr. Leonard said educating people how to be responsible with balloons can only do so much. “I think it’s ban time,” he said.
Brendan O’Neill, executive director of the Vineyard Conservation Society (VCS), said there are plans in the works to address plastic pollution on the Island, but the focus will be on plastic bags.
“We’re looking into the possibility of following other towns, including Falmouth and other nearby Cape towns, in going for a ban on plastic shopping bags as sort of a first step,” he said.
He said addressing balloon pollution could be further down the line, following the plastic bag initiative.
“Balloons, I believe, are a little bit further back in the research,” he said. “It’s one that we’re aware of, and we’re looking at as a part of the initiative.”
Balloon sales on the Island
Rose Bud Balloons is the “one-stop party shop on Martha’s Vineyard,” and “home of the balloon.” Store manager Pamela Munroe said they have taken measures at the store to address balloon pollution.
“It’s always been one of our top priorities to inform all of our customers about balloon safety — how to maneuver with their balloons, up to even walking out to the car with them and making sure that they are tied down so they don’t come flying out of the car and up into the sky,” she said. “It’s a major thing for us.”
She said that via verbal instructions, handouts, and information on their website, the store attempts to inform customers not to let their balloons go, to use weights, to bring a friend if they don’t have enough hands for all their balloons, and how to dispose of their speciality balloons properly.
“Unfortunately, once the balloons leave our store, we really don’t have control over what the customer does with them,” she said.
She said a possible solution could be encouraging customers to keep their balloons indoors, or dispose of them properly if they use them outdoors.
“Everyone, everywhere, needs to know what can happen with balloons and how to be responsible,” Ms. Munroe said. “Just as you would with going to the beach and leaving your trash there, don’t do that; try to minimize your waste and dispose of things properly.”
She doesn’t think a balloon ban, similar to Nantucket’s, is a good solution.
“To ban something completely that people really go to for entertainment, whether it’s birthdays, anniversaries, any kind of celebration, even just to cheer someone up, it’s kind of a shame that that can’t be done there anymore,” she said. “I would hate to see that happen here, not just for our business’ sake, but for so many people who have these events, and are involved with charities and special events. And just to see people’s faces light up when they get a big bunch of balloons, that’s such an awesome feeling.”
Ms. Munroe believes awareness, not banning, is the solution.
“With more information about how to use the balloons responsibly, and not being, for lack of a better word, careless, I don’t think the balloons necessarily would have to be banned on the Vineyard,” she said.