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Saturday, February 8, 2020

"This is not some bullshit pollution legislation"

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

Norbert Stamps, a longshore lobster and crab fishing boat captain, said balloons are the most common debris fishermen encounter.Norbert Stamps, a longshore lobster and crab fishing boat captain, said balloons are the most common debris fishermen encounter.

Commercial fishermen aren’t happy with the amount of balloons they constantly find floating in the ocean and support a bill that places restrictions on their use.

House bill H7216 doesn’t ban or prohibit the use of balloons but forbids the intentional release of balloons containing helium.

At a Jan. 28 hearing of the House Judiciary Committee, commercial fisherman Norbert Stamps gave emotional testimony recounting the endless presence of balloon and balloon strings floating at sea between Canada and Virginia.

“This is not some bullshit pollution legislation,” Stamps said. “This is the biggest piece of plastic commercial fishermen in New England see in our ocean and New England coast.”

Balloons, he said, are the most common waste fishermen encounter, most often as a bunch of balloons that have been released from weddings, graduations, and other events.


Balloons threaten filter feeders such as endangered North Atlantic right whales, Stamps noted. A 2019 study out of Australia found that soft plastics such as balloons accounted for only 5 percent of the items ingested by seabirds but are responsible for 42 percent of seabird deaths. Balloons floating in water also resemble jellyfish and are often consumed by seals and turtles.

Stamps, a 45-year Rhode Island-based longshore lobster and crab fishing boat captain, is vice president of the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen’s Association and a member of several other fish and lobster research associations. 

Using his extensive network of fishermen and groups from the Mid-Atlantic to Maine, Stamps collects photos of balloons found at sea and along the shoreline. He has secured verbal commitments of support for the Rhode Island balloon bill from various lobster and fishing associations in the Northeast.

The legislation won't solve the problem of plastics in the ocean, but “balloon release is a big environmental hazard,” Stamps said. “This is the real deal … there are a lot of balloons released. And they don’t go to heaven, they go in the ocean.”

Save The Bay reported that it collected 737 balloons during local beach cleanups in 2018.

Other fishermen said they encounter balloon bunches daily in Block Island Sound.

Bans in parts of Long Island, N.Y., and New Jersey, Stamps said, may be reducing the number of balloons he’s encountering. Balloon bans have been enacted in Little Compton and on Block Island.
The House bill bans the intentional release of balloons, a distinction noted by the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Susan Donovan, D-Bristol.

“It does not ban balloons altogether or punish anyone for their accidental release,” said Donovan, who is sponsoring the bill for a second year.

Rep. Lauren Carson, D-Newport, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the ban “may be interpreted as taking toys away from kids.“ But, she said, the public needs to understand the limited restriction of the prohibition while manufactures should be asked to produce less harmful toys.

Geoff Dennis of Little Compton submitted photos of piles of balloons he has collected while cleaning local beaches. In 2019, Dennis collected 900 mylar balloons and 595 latex balloons.

If passed this year, the ban would take effect Nov. 1.

No one spoke against the bill, but a bill to ban the sale of helium-filled balloons in Massachusetts was opposed by the Retailers Association of Massachusetts.

Climate change

A bill (H7399) introduced Jan. 31 by Rep. Christopher Blazejewski, D-Providence, revises the Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 to make emission-reduction goals enforceable through legal action. The goals are currently nonbinding.


The targets would also be strengthened to reflect prevailing research. In the bill, the current 2035 goal of a 45 percent reduction would increase to 50 percent. The 80 percent reduction goal would be changed to net-zero emissions by 2050. Progress would be tracked online.

No hearing has been scheduled.