Balloons Are Now the Biggest Killer of Seabirds, Study Finds

While scientists and conservationists continue to raise concerns about how plastic waste is affecting marine life, a new study has found that for seabirds are being particularly affected by balloons.

According to the study, which was just published in the journal Scientific Reports, seabirds are the world’s most threatened group of birds, with nearly half of species experiencing population declines, and 28 percent being threatened globally.

Now, it’s estimated that half of the world’s seabirds are also eating marine debris, and that number is expected to hit 99 percent by 2050 if we don’t take action to address the problem.

Because of the seriousness of that threat to their future survival, scientists wanted to see just how bad the problem is, and quantify the impact eating plastic is having on them. To figure that out how much and what type of plastics seabirds were consuming, they looked at the bodies of birds who had died.

Of the 1733 individuals they examined, which included birds from 51 species, they found that 557 had ingested marine debris. Hard plastic fragments were the most common item ingested, but soft plastics were also found to be causing big problems and were far more likely to kill seabirds by causing blockages.

Overall, even though eating any kind of plastic is big problem, they found that balloons are the highest-risk debris item for seabirds, and were 32 times more likely to result in death than hard plastic.

“Balloons or balloon fragments were the marine debris most likely to cause mortality, and they killed almost one in five of the seabirds that ingested them,” said the study’s lead author, Lauren Roman, a doctoral student at the University of Tasmania. “As similar research into plastic ingestion by sea turtles has found, it appears that while hard plastic fragments may pass quickly through the gut, soft plastics are more likely to become compacted and cause fatal obstructions.”

The study’s authors hope their findings will lead to change to address this problem, which is affecting marine species all over, whether they’re consuming plastic bits, or getting tangled in strings. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), balloon debris is a national issue in the U.S., whether people are intentionally releasing them or accidentally letting them go, and waste from them is turning up all over our shores. The agency pointed to the Ocean Conservancy’s annual coastal cleanup, which has provided a one day “snapshot” of balloon debris that showed that between 2008 and 2016, 280,293 balloons were found in the U.S., which is an average of 31,143 each year.

“If seabirds eat plastic their risk of mortality increases, and even a single piece can be fatal,” added Roman. “The evidence is clear that if we want to stop seabirds from dying from plastic ingestion we need to reduce or remove marine debris from their environment, particularly balloons.”

For more info about the problems with balloons and the many alternatives to use for fun or events, check out Balloons Blow.

Photo credit: Getty Images

113 comments

Hannah A
Hannah A2 months ago

Thanks for this

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Ann W
Ann W2 months ago

I also hate balloons. You see so many times on TV crowds of people sending balloons into the air to celebrate anything and everything and think it is fun. I've even seen it done at funerals to mark the life of a departed. No one seems to care, or even think about, the destruction and death of countless wildlife that these balloons will cause. Do they even bother to think that these things have to come back to earth at some stage? I remember years ago some young girl was so concerned about the balloon problem she was campaigning hard to stop it. Of course nothing happened - she was just one little kid who cared. No one was going to let her stop their fun.

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lori c
lori c2 months ago

Balloons DON'T go to heaven!

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Jennifer H
Jennifer H2 months ago

I have always hated balloons. Do people think when the darn things fly off into the sunset that they evaporate? One day on the beach I picked up 2 Mylar balloons. Just one day. Look at the totals. Disgusting.

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Angela K
Angela K2 months ago

Thanks for sharing

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Leo C
Leo Custer2 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Dr. Jan H
Dr. Jan H2 months ago

thanks for the info

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Sandra Ludgate
Sandra Ludgate2 months ago

I agree , time to rethink our use of balloons.

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Frances G
Carla G2 months ago

grim reading

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Lesa D
Past Member 2 months ago

burst the balloon!!!

thank you Alicia...

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