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Unwelcome Catch: Fishermen's Stewardship Role Reeling in Marine Debris

April 22, 2024

Commercial fishermen are helping tackle marine pollution, one balloon at a time.

A deflated foil balloon on a beach sitting on a bed of seaweeds A Mylar balloon on the shoreline of Santa Rosa Island off the coast of California. Credit: Courtesy of NOAA Marine Debris Program

It's hard to live near or visit our beautiful ocean without coming across marine debris. Trash is leftover by beachgoers and coastal communities; garbage is carried across the ocean from distant shores; lost and abandoned fishing gear floats away on winds and currents. This debris becomes hazardous to life on shore and at sea. Balloons are a particularly pervasive form of marine debris—and some fishermen are going the extra (nautical) mile to address.

A small group of fishermen are making a big impact by catching more than just seafood on their fishing trips, collecting any balloons they see while out on the water. We recognize their stewardship this Earth Day and invite you to join in their efforts to combat marine debris, one balloon at a time!

Balloons Cause Harm on Land and Sea

A NOAA employee on a beach holding up a deflated Mylar balloon that says Happy Birthday on it.
Sarah Lowe, NOAA Marine Debris Program, holds up a birthday balloon found on the shoreline of the Great Lakes (Photo Credit: NOAA).

The act of releasing balloons—deliberately or not—may seem harmless. But no matter how far they travel, balloons eventually return to Earth and wash up in our ocean, Great Lakes, and waterways. In 2019 alone, volunteers around the globe collected more than 104,000 balloons during the annual International Coastal Cleanup organized by the Ocean Conservancy. Approximately half of those balloons were found in the United States. One of the most common types of balloons found on these coastal cleanups are Mylar, also known as foil, balloons. Mylar is crafted from plastic nylon sheets with metal coating, which can conduct electricity.

On land, Mylar balloons can become entangled with power lines and circuit breakers. Their conductivity causes power outages with thousands occurring in California every year alone. Many wayward balloons also end up in the ocean, where they sink down to pollute habitats far below the surface. A 2013 expedition by NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer discovered balloon remnants in approximately half their deep sea dives—including a Mylar balloon wrapped around a dead deep-sea coral nearly a mile under the ocean surface. And because Mylar balloons never biodegrade, they will linger where they land forever. Through exposure to winds, waves, and the sun, a Mylar balloon that lands on the ocean surface will break into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually creating microplastics that may never go away.

A Deadly Catch

A fisherman standing behind a circle of 50 deflated Mylar balloons that he collected from the ocean.
Captain Nate Severdija stands with the Mylar balloons that he caught during one season of fishing charters off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Fishermen are acutely aware of balloons’ ill-fated travels. Off the coast of Cape Cod, Captain Nate Severdija and the crew at Downeast Charters frequently spot them while fishing for striped bass and tuna. “I’ve been fishing my whole life and can’t think of a time when I wasn’t finding balloons,” shared Captain Severdija. “Their reflective coloring can resemble a fish—or school of fish—to a predator, and they often have lengths of ribbon still attached that can lead to entanglement. As they lose their color they become clear and they start to look more like a jellyfish.”

Sadly, Mylar balloons made the news for this very reason in November 2023 when one was found in the stomach of a young Gervais’ beaked whale in North Carolina. Like many other ocean creatures, the calf likely mistook the balloon for food. Ingested balloons obstruct animals’ ability to properly digest food, leading to starvation and sometimes death. Instances like these emphasize the importance of education and individual action against balloon debris. “I’ll redirect my boat to go pick up a balloon if I see one,” explains Captain Severdija. “In the region where we fish, last season alone we collected 50 balloons.”

Captain Severdija and other fishermen are encouraged that more cities and states are introducing legislation to ban intentional balloon releases. Many fishermen are thinking beyond their traditional role of sustainably harvesting seafood and getting directly involved in such conservation efforts. “I enjoy working with science and research groups to deepen my own knowledge about conservation,” reflected Captain Severdija, who also partners with projects tagging and tracking sharks and other marine animals. “Collecting these balloons and raising awareness about their hazards with my charter guests is just one more way I can contribute to ocean conservation.”

Think Like a Fisherman (How You Can Help)

Bubbles, Not Balloons. Balloons are a common form of marine debris—sometimes marine mammals ingest them. Help keep the oceans clean by using bubbles instead of balloons for your celebrations! Bubble Recipe: 4 cups warm water, 1/2 cup dish soap, 1/2 cup granulated sugar. Whisk ingredients together and let sit for a few hours before using.
Credit: NOAA Fisheries

As we enter the celebratory season of graduations, outdoor weddings, and more, you can play an important role in preventing balloons from becoming marine debris. First, don’t intentionally release balloons. There are many ways that you can have a litter-free celebration using alternatives such as bubbles, streamers, and sparklers.

You can also follow in the footsteps of our nation’s fishermen and get directly involved with cleaning up the ocean. National initiatives like the Environmental Protection Agency’s Trash Free Waters program offer regional projects. You can also get involved in the next International Coastal Cleanup. You can even host your own community cleanup using these guidelines created by NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.

With increased awareness about the issue, we can help to reduce this very preventable form of marine debris and safeguard our ocean.

Learn more about how to get involved with marine debris efforts in your region

Last updated by Office of Communications on April 22, 2024