25 March 2009

Documented reports of Death-by-Balloon?

"Not one (1) documented report of a sea creature dying from eating a discarded balloon" commented TNH on my earlier post.

I did a quick scan. Sadly, there are many reports to be found. From reports of autopsies of dead sea turtles, sea turtle hospitals which had photos of the balloons jamming up the intestines of their patients, to scholarly articles on how sea turtles actually prefer to eat latex over plastic, and the effects of latex on sea turtles.

There's also a whole host of other reports on the impact of marine debris on sea turtles, seabirds and other marine life. Especially plastic debris. Even of sea cucumbers eating tiny bits of plastic.

Ultimately, marine debris will end up in those at the top of the food chain. Just deserts anyone?

from "Turtles choked with marine rubbish" from the University of Queensland website, 12 July 2006
A turtle and the marine rubbish which choked its gut.
A recent spate of small turtles washing up on Australia's eastern shores has highlighted concerns about marine debris by scientists and animal welfare groups.

Two turtles, one found on North Stradbroke Island in Queensland and a second found at Fingal Head NSW have triggered alarm bells. Both animals were around 20cm long and died with guts choked with marine rubbish.

"The first turtle was a tiny 22 cm green turtle brought into The University of Queensland's Moreton Bay Research Station on North Stradbroke Island for care," Station Education Officer Dr Kathy Townsend said.

"The emaciated immature female was extremely weak and severely dehydrated and was suffering from floating syndrome which is where food trapped by foreign material starts to decompose, leaking gases into the body cavity and causing the animal to float. "After dressing the turtle's wounds and placing her on a drip, we kept her under observation over night. Unfortunately, she succumbed to her illness and died the next morning.”

A necropsy (autopsy) was performed on the turtle and discovered that her gut was choked with decomposing seagrass and marine rubbish.

“Bits of plastic shopping bags, black plastic rubbish bag, parts of plastic bottle tops, plastic thread, party balloons - and even a bit of a flip flop (thongs) were found lodged in the animal's gut," Dr Townsend said. "Over 40 individual pieces of rubbish were accounted for, the majority of it plastic-based.

“The final cause of death was identified as gut impaction and septicaemia caused by the marine rubbish."

from Plastic bags threaten ancient turtle species, Randy Boswell, Canwest News Service 19 Mar 09;
The researchers' analysis of nearly 400 turtle autopsies conducted since 1968 showed that 37.2 per cent of the dead leatherbacks examined had ingested some form of plastic — mostly bags, but also fishing lines, balloons, picnic cutlery and candy wrappers.

The study, published in the latest edition of the scientific journal Marine Pollution Bulletin, was co-authored by biologists Nicholas Mrosovsky of the University of Toronto, Geraldine Ryan from the University of Guelph and Mike James, a leatherback turtle specialist with Dalhousie University and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

from "Gulf marine life, birds fight losing battle against pollution, people"
Diana Smith, Naples Daily News (Florida) 3 Oct 03;
Widget was like a piñata when she first came to the Turtle Hospital in the Florida Keys.

But instead of pieces of candy, the loggerhead sea turtle was filled with garbage.

Inside her were three shredded balloons —red, green and black. One plastic glove — the kind sandwich makers wear in fast-food joints. A black cap that looked like it belonged on a tire stem, and some duct tape.

Widget ate the items, mistaking them for food.

The pieces of garbage are now in a glass jar that sits on a counter in the hospital, where only sick turtles are examined. As Widget rested in her own tank, volunteers waited for more junk to flow out of her.

Once her system was clean, volunteers would take the jar with them when they talked about pollution in the Gulf of Mexico.
An X-ray shows how debris tossed into the Gulf can lodge in sea turtles and other species that are finding it more difficult to locate nature's food. Researchers say rubbish is increasingly causing injuries and death to marine life, including endangered species like sea turtles. More then 50 sea turtles a year end up in the Turtle Hospital in Marathon. Cameron Gillie/Staff

From the Turtle Hospital Florida Keys
Turtles are opportunistic feeders, meaning they will eat just about anything - sort of like a billy goat. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible for a turtle to break-down synthetic material once it is ingested, and very often it will cause an intestinal blockage, called an impaction. Of course, a turtle has little chance of eliminating the impaction on it’s own in the wild and this condition will usually end to starvation. This is one reason why we need to keep track of our trash and make sure it is properly disposed of. Here at the hospital, impacted turtles are treated with a combination of Metamucil and mineral oil.
The above pictures are of trash taken from two different turtles’ intestines.

from the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation Center
Weeks after admissions this little green passed two pieces of balloons, one blue and one red.
Had she not been able to pass these pieces she would have died.

From the Sand Sifters website
Dr. Peter Lutz, noted sea turtle biologist in Florida, published a study in 1990 on the ingestion of latex balloon pieces by sea turtles. It was presented at the Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Marine Debris. Dr. Lutz' study found:

1. When offered a mix of pieces of clear plastic and brightly colored latex, the turtles showed a strong preference for the latex pieces over the plastic.

2. In experiments with latex only, sea turtles demonstrated that if their appetite is sufficient, they will actively swim towards and ingest latex materials, that all colors are acceptable, and that the amount ingested will depend on their nutritional state.

3. The length of time that the latex remained in the turtle's intestinal tract ranged from a few days to four months, with a peak time period of eight weeks. (Note: the normal gut passage time in sea turtles is approx. 10 days.)

4. Turtles passed multiple pieces bound together, although they had ingested the individual pieces at different times, showing the possible cumulative effect of ingestion of latex balloon pieces.

Evidence of Impacts: Scientists who work with stranded whales, dolphins, seals and sea turtles have been looking at the stomach contents of these dead marine animals. These scientists have found balloons, parts of balloons and balloon string during numerous necropsies.
Lutz, P.L. (1990). Studies on the ingestion of plastic and latex by sea turtles, in: Shomura, R.S.; Godfrey, M.L. (1990). Proceedings of the Second International Conference on Marine Debris 2-7 April 1989, Honolulu, Hawaii, volume 1. NOAA Technical Memorandum, NMFS-SWFSC(154): pp. 719-735 VLIZ

Overview of the biological effects of lost and discarded plastic debris in the marine environment. Laist, DW; Marine Pollution Bulletin [MAR. POLLUT. BULL.]. Vol. 18, no. 6B. 1987. On CSA Illumina
In the past 30 years, the use of plastics and other synthetic materials has expanded at a rapid pace. The accumulating debris poses increasingly significant threats to marine mammals, seabirds, turtles, fish, and crustaceans. The threats are straightforward and primarily mechanical. Individual animals may become entangled in loops or openings of floating or submerged debris or they may ingest plastic materials. Animals that become entangled may drown, have their ability to catch food or avoid predators impaired, or incur wounds from abrasive or cutting action of attached debris. Ingested plastics may block digestive tracts, damage stomach linings, or lessen feeding drives. Developing information suggests that the mechanical effects of these materials affect many marine species in many ocean areas, and that these effects justify recognition of persistent plastic debris as a major form of ocean pollution.
The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review. José G. B. Derraik, Ecology and Health Research Centre, Department of Public Health,Wellington School of Medicine and Health Sciences, University of Otago, P.O. Box 7343, Wellington, New Zealand.
Available online 28 August 2002. Science Direct
The deleterious effects of plastic debris on the marine environment were reviewed by bringing together most of the literature published so far on the topic. A large number of marine species is known to be harmed and/or killed by plastic debris, which could jeopardize their survival, especially since many are already endangered by other forms of anthropogenic activities. Marine animals are mostly affected through entanglement in and ingestion of plastic litter. Other less known threats include the use of plastic debris by “invader” species and the absorption of polychlorinated biphenyls from ingested plastics. Less conspicuous forms, such as plastic pellets and “scrubbers” are also hazardous. To address the problem of plastic debris in the oceans is a difficult task, and a variety of approaches are urgently required. Some of the ways to mitigate the problem are discussed.
Ingestion of marine debris by juvenile sea turtles in coastal Florida habitats. BJORNDAL K. A.; BOLTEN A. B.; LAGUEUX C. J.; Univ. Florida, cent. sea turtle res., Gainesville FL 32611, ETATS-UNIS. On CAT.INIST
Digestive tracts From 51 sea turtle carcasses that washed ashore on the east and west coasts of Florida were examined For the presence of anthropogenic debris. Debris was Found in 24 of 43 green turtles (Chelonia mydas), 0 of 7 Kemp's ridleys (Lepidochelys kempi), and 1 of 1 loggerhead (Caretta caretta). Ingested debris included plastic, monofilament line, fish hooks, rubber, aluminium foil, and tar. For green turtles, ingestion of debris was not significantly affected by location of stranding, season, or body size. Debris ingestion was significantly affected by sex of the turtle. Frequency of occurrence of debris was significantly higher in females, but differences in the mass or volume ofr ingested debris were not significantly different between the sexes. Although frequency of occurrence of debris was high in green turtles (56%), the mass and volume of the debris were sùall-mean 0.25% of wet mass of gut contents and mean 0.72% of the volume of gut contents, respectively.
Plastic Jellyfish. N. Mrosovsky. Departments of Zoology and Psychology, University of Toronto, Toronto, M5S 1A1, Canada. Marine Turtle Newsletter 17:5-7, © 1981
There are several reports of the occurrence of plastic in the stomachs of sea turtles (Brongersma, 1968, Proe. Koninkl. Nederl. Akad. van Wetenschappen Ser C 71, 128-136; Hirth, 1971, Fisheries Synopsis 85, FAO, Rome; Hughes, 1974, Investigational Rep. 35 & 36, Oceanogr. Res. Inst., Durban, S. Africa; Carr and Stancyk, 1975, Biol. Conserv. 8, 161-172). The suggestion that turtles mistake plastic for jellyfish is not new but no one has attempted a quantitative assessment. This note presents evidence on leatherback turtles, Dermochelys coriacea, showing that ingestion of plastic is common.

Stomach contents of leatherbacks have been admirably reviewed by Brongersma in 1969 (Proc. Koninkl. Nederl. Akad. van Wetenschappen Ser C 72, 76-102); he concluded that jellyfish are a major food item. While working on a monograph on this species, I have assembled more recent data; Drs. Marx, Rhodin, Shoop and Threlfall kindly provided information. Listed below are all the cases since Brongersma's review that I am aware of where stomachs of leatherbacks have been examined, excluding data from a juvenile (Brongersma, 1970, Proc. Koninkl. Nederl, Akad, van Wetenschappen, Ser C 73, 323-335) and from an adult found dead on the beach in French Guiana (Mrosovsky and Pritchard, unpublished). Of course some reports may have been missed and other dissections may have gone unreported. Nevertheless the sample is sufficient to show that the eating of plastic is not just a rarity: 7 out of 16 cases, that is 44% of the leatherbacks examined had plastic (or cellophane) in their stomachs.
Occurrence of Plastic Particles in Seabirds from the Eastern North Pacific. LOUISE K. BLIGHT and ALAN E. BURGER. Department of Biology University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada V8W 2Y2 and Bamfield Marine Station, Bamfield, British Columbia, Canada VOR 1BO. Hawaii Atolls
We found plastic particles in the stomachs of 8 of the 11 species of seabirds caught as bycatch in the pelagic waters of the eastern North Pacific (41-50°N, 131-134°W). Plastic was found in all surface-feeding birds (two stormpetrel, one albatross, one petrel and one fulmar species) and in 75% of shearwaters. Densities in some stormpetrels, shearwaters and the petrel were possibly sufficient to impede digestion, but were negligible in other birds. Plastic was also found in two diving species (puffins) but absent in three others (murre, auklet and murrelet). Of 353 anthropogenic items examined, 29% were industrial pellets and 71% were fragments of discarded products ('user' plastic), with user plastic making up 60% of total mass. Our study is evidence of widespread plastic pollution affecting birds in a previously unsampled sector of the North Pacific.
Deposit- and suspension-feeding sea cucumbers (Echinodermata) ingest plastic fragments. Erin R. Grahama and Joseph T. Thompsona, Department of Biology, Saint Joseph's University, 5600 City Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19131 USA. Department of Biology, Franklin & Marshall College, P.O. Box 3003, Lancaster, PA 17604 USA. Received 30 April 2008; revised 5 September 2008; accepted 8 September 2008. Available online 16 October 2008. Science Direct
Weathering of plastic bottles, bags, fishing line, and other products discarded in the ocean causes tiny fragments to break off. These plastic fragments may accumulate biofilms, sink, and become mixed with sediment, where benthic invertebrates may encounter and ingest them. Here we show that four species of deposit-feeding and suspension-feeding sea cucumbers (Echinodermata, Holothuroidea) not only ingest small (0.25 mm)

...and there's lots lots more articles and papers on impact of marine debris on marine life.


  1. I suspect TNH is from some company that does balloon release. He seems to be on a lookout for blogs that talks about balloon release. He commented on my blog when I raise the issue on Earth Hour doing balloon release.

  2. DK, The reports listed above do not support factually that balloons cause harm or death to the sea creatures involved. The study by Dr. Peter Lutz, done at the University of Miami, concluded that the latex balloon pieces that were fed to the turtles in captivity passed through their systems and did not cause any of the turtles harm or death. Too many times balloons are lumped in with plastic pollution which is far more prevelant in the oceans and in fact does pose a threat to the marine life. I am very sympathetic to your cause and keep an open mind when reviewing all the materials. Far better to educate the public on safe ways to deal with enviromental issues than to try and make evidence fit a pre conceived idea.

  3. TNH: There are also several reported cases where the balloon blocked a turtle's gut and cause it to starve to death.

  4. Thank you for clearing up the balloon issue. To often people attach the balloon industry for animals digesting balloons. If people would follow the regulations by the balloon council, less problems would occur. http://www.savetheballoons.com/current-law.html

    Activist have to realize balloon professionals do follow laws when it comes to balloons.

  5. DK, We read headlines that say when you release latex balloons, birds, turtles, dolphins etc. eat them and die. From the evidence and reports that we have gone through for years, we have yet to find one that shows any of these creatures dying from a latex balloon. Of the information provided above, only one of these cases - the one where the turtles did die - can be taken into account and you cannot factually draw the conclusion that these turtles died from ingesting the latex balloon. If there are other reports as you claim - it would be great to see them. We have seen the headlines but the facts remain elusive - most often degenerating into stories about plastic polution.(as your articles above did) On a larger front, the negative headlines impact an industry that deals with balloons and brings joy to millions of people - not a balloon release industry - but people who make their living providing balloons for events and parties. Headlines about balloons causing death do great harm to the entire industry and it is even more tragic when those headlines do not have facts to support the claims.

  6. Thank you very much for your informative post on the threat of balloons on our sea turtles and other wildlife. I would love to see balloons banned on the beach.

    I am a volunteer sea turtle patrol person on Pensacola Beach and we are saddened to see the amount of trash on our beaches. Although we do not have time to stop and pick up all the plastic bottles and cans, we all make a point to stop and pick up glass bottles and balloons when we see them


  7. Singapore is eager the environment policy.
    On the other hand, a Japanese environment policy is a lie.
    Japanese businesses have been enlightening it , saying that "The balloon release is environment-friendly".
    There is no environment group to criticize even if 100000 balloon release are given at the concert of 1 time, too.
    The Japanese worries about the Marine debris from China and South Korea.
    However, it doesn't know Japan has put out a large amount of Marine debris.
    A sea turtle may die out if the environment policy of the sea is left to Japan.





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