Guest Blog By: Laura Anthony, 2018 NOAA Hollings Scholar, Western Washington University
My high school graduation was anything but joyful as I begged my peers not to release the balloons they held. I’m Laura Anthony, otherwise known as the overenthusiastic marine biology student telling people not to use plastic cups at parties. This summer, I was a NOAA Hollings Scholar in the Deep Sea Coral Research and Technology Program assessing the impact of anthropogenic (human created) debris on deep-sea coral and sponge habitats.
To begin my project, I analyzed deep-sea video footage in the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico taken on NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer expeditions with remotely operated vehicles (ROV). Being passionate about deep-sea coral and sponge habitats, I was excited to work on a project analyzing our impact on these distant ecosystems. I sifted through about 800 hours of video content tagged for anthropogenic material, typically finding debris such as derelict fishing gear.
Then I saw it, a mylar balloon 1,400 meters under the sea, wrapped around a dead deep-sea coral. I documented the seemingly odd occurrence and continued reviewing the videos. But soon there was another balloon, and another, and then some balloon ribbons. In approximately half the dives from a single expedition, the Okeanos captured evidence of balloon or balloon remnants such as ribbons. Considering how little area each dive is able to cover, this could mean thousands of undiscovered balloons scattered across the deep sea. This video footage that explored deep-sea canyons was from the ROV Exploration of the Northeast U.S. Deepwater Canyons expedition conducted in 2013. As my research continued, I saw many pieces of debris but nothing struck me more than balloons. Three percent of Atlantic deep-sea debris items seen by the Okeanos Explorer in the last six years consisted of balloons, a very large percentage considering how far removed the deep-sea is from typical human activity.
Though balloons appear to float into space, to be lost forever, they will always come back down. Balloon releases provide a brief moment of celebration, but the balloons can persist in environments such as the deep sea for years or centuries before becoming microplastics, an increasing threat to these habitats. Sometimes they’ll continue to sink thousands of meters under the ocean to pollute habitats such as deep-sea coral and sponge grounds that most people don’t even know exist. Once in the ocean, they can also become yet another hazard for marine wildlife. Balloons can be mistaken for food, and if eaten and ingested, can lead to a loss of nutrition, internal injury, starvation, and death.
There is a simple solution to this daunting pollutant - ending balloon releases. Luckily, balloons and other types of marine debris are completely preventable. There are many decoration alternatives to balloons and if you do use balloons, keep them inside and make sure there is a weight attached to prevent accidental releases.The Joyful Send-off Campaign, a partnership with the Coastal States Stewardship Foundation, aims to educate people who may be considering balloon releases as part of a celebration. Though many deep-sea corals are thousands of years old, they hardly need birthday balloons to help them celebrate!