What goes up must come down

What goes up must come down

Words by Darcie Carruthers,
Zoos Victoria senior manager conservation campaigns

If you’ve been to Melbourne Zoo lately, you would have been greeted by beautiful, shiny bubbles floating past as you walked through the main entrance and into the grounds. As fun and pretty as they are, those bubbles actually represent a very serious message about marine life and how our actions can have a huge impact on animals.

Balloons are usually associated with celebration, festivities and good times. But many people aren’t aware that balloons are actually the single deadliest item when ingested by seabirds.

A few years ago, Zoos Victoria and Phillip Island Nature Parks initiated the “When Balloons Fly, Seabirds Die” campaign off the back of evidence from the CSIRO that identified the top three deadliest forms of marine litter to wildlife. They are: fishing line, plastic bags and balloons. Our existing “Seal The Loop” campaign was developed to help address the effect of fishing line entanglements on marine wildlife, and there was already government action around plastic bags. But we noticed there wasn’t much being done about balloons. And that’s how the When Balloons Fly, Seabirds Die campaign was born.

In 2019, the University of Tasmania and CSIRO assessed the cause of death data for 1733 Australian seabirds across many different species, including shearwaters, petrels and albatross, and found that the item that was most likely to result in death, when ingested, was balloons. Unfortunately, when used outside, balloons can escape from us and make their way into the marine environment, where they can stay for a very long time.

What goes up, must come down.

When a balloon bursts and ends up floating on the surface of the ocean or waterway, animals can mistake it for food – eating it themselves or feeding it to their young. This is exactly what is happening with the Flesh-footed Shearwaters at Lord Howe Island.

Located just off the coast of New South Wales, Lord Howe Island is home to an incredible population of Flesh-footed Shearwaters (also known as mutton birds). The birds are a migratory species that travel to the island to lay their eggs in sand dunes. Unfortunately, many of the adults there are skimming balloons and other items off of the water’s surface, returning to Lord Howe Island, and feeding those items to their chicks. Our campaign collaborator from the University of Tasmania, Dr Jennifer Lavers, studies the birds and the contents of their stomachs every year. She has consistently found that balloons and their attachments (the clips and string) are some of the most identifiable items eaten by the birds.

Seabirds and turtles are the animals most affected by balloons and other soft plastics because they are the ones that are most likely to mistake these items for food, being surface-foraging species. A seabird is up to 32 times more likely to die if it swallows a soft item, like a balloon, than if it swallows any form of hard plastic. Items such as cling wrap, food wrappers, as well as balloons, can be lethal to wildlife.

So, what does that mean for all of us here in Melbourne?

On July 1, 2021, it became illegal to release balloons into the environment in Victoria, under the state’s new and revamped Environment Protection Act 2021. Zoos Victoria was able to play a vital role in bringing about this change by working with other state government agencies to highlight the dangers that balloons pose to wildlife. They were incredibly receptive to the evidence we presented, the success of our When Balloons Fly, Seabirds Die campaign, and the incredible response we received from the community.

As we head into summer and spend more time outdoors doing the things we love to do as Victorians and Australians, it’s important to keep in mind how our actions can have a massive impact on marine wildlife. And by making some small changes in our lives – such as swapping balloons for bubbles – we can greatly reduce harm to precious wildlife.

If you’re heading out over summer and having a picnic or a day at the beach, try to bring cutlery, cups and plates that you can use again. If you’re celebrating outdoors, think about blowing bubbles instead of using balloons. And, if you do come across a marine or aquatic animal that is injured or in distress, you can call Melbourne Zoo’s Marine Response Unit on 1300 245 678. Together, we can help protect these beautiful animals and our environment •

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