Fishermen come out in support of balloon-release bill

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 2/8/20

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing Tuesday, Jan. 28, on legislation, introduced by Rep. Susan Donovan (D-69), which attempts to protect the environment and wildlife by banning the …

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Fishermen come out in support of balloon-release bill


The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing Tuesday, Jan. 28, on legislation, introduced by Rep. Susan Donovan (D-69), which attempts to protect the environment and wildlife by banning the intentional release of balloons into the air.

“When I first introduced the legislation last year, I was thinking of it as a purely environmental issue,” said Rep. Donovan. “Then I started hearing from fishermen about how much of a nuisance these balloons were. Ken Murgo, a Bristol lobsterman, told me he’s been out on the water and mistaken balloons floating on the surface for lobster pot buoys.”

Balloons are not only a significant threat to wildlife and a nuisance to commercial fishermen, they have been implicated in several power outages in recent years. All released balloons, including those falsely marketed as biodegradable, end up as litter on waterways and landscapes. Animals, attracted by their vibrant colors and shapes, mistake them for food, causing injury or death to countless sea and land creatures each year. 

According to Save The Bay, the plastic remains of 737 balloons were found along Rhode Island’s shoreline during its statewide cleanup in September 2018. Dead sea creatures continually wash up on our shores, their stomachs filled with plastic debris or bodies tangled in the strings of released balloons.

The bill (2020-H 7261), which is modeled after legislation proposed in New Jersey, would prohibit any intentional release of balloons, except for scientific or meteorological purposes with government permission, hot air balloon launches and indoor releases. Each violation would be punishable by a fine of up to $500 per offense, although releases of multiple balloons at once would be considered a single offense.

The bill has widespread support from environmental groups across Rhode Island and fishermen’s associations. Norbert Stamps, who supports the legislation, is vice president of the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association, executive board member of the Commercial Fishermen’s Research Foundation, board member of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine and past president of the R.I. Lobstermen’s Association. According to Rep. Donavan, he spoke forcefully in support of the legislation on Tuesday night.

In 2018, the New Shoreham Town Council passed an ordinance banning the sale of balloons on Block Island as a means of addressing this issue. Rep. Donovan’s bill would not prohibit balloon sales, only the outdoor release of balloons.

“As a commercial fisherman in Narragansett Bay, I frequently come across balloons floating on the surface, on the sea floor, and in my traps,” said Bristol lobster fisherman Katie Eagan. “Releasing balloons is a form of littering that directly pollutes the ecosystems I depend on. It was been well documented that fish, turtles, marine mammals, and seabirds often mistake balloon material for prey and are killed as a result. Banning the release of balloons will bring us one step closer to preserving a healthy and productive ecosystem for all stakeholders.”

The House Judiciary Committee will consider Tuesday’s oral testimony as well as written testimony; the same process will be followed in the Senate with that chamber’s version of the bill. If they are voted out of committee, they will come to the floor of both chambers for a full vote. 

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