Duck considers ordinance banning balloon releases

By on April 2, 2024

(File photo-credit: NPS/M. Gosselin)

As Dare County towns and the business community grapple with the potential danger to marine wildlife created by helium-filled balloons, the Town of Duck may be the first local municipality to pass an ordinance outlawing their release within town boundaries.

If passed at the April 3 town council meeting, the ordinance would prohibit releasing “any type of balloon inflated with a liquid, air, or gas within the Town limits.” There is an exception for weather and research balloons.

Helium filled balloons are most often cited as the greatest risk to wildlife because they can drift so far from where there are released. However, any balloon that is not disposed of properly can pose a risk to wildlife.

Duck Mayor Pro Tem Monica Thibodeau, however, is unsure if council members will vote on the ordinance at the meeting, noting that Mayor Don Kinston will not be there. “With Don not in, [I’m unsure] whether we would proceed without him,” she said.

Thibodeau also pointed out that new ordinances often go through revisions. “It’s a draft and it’s the first I’ve seen it,” she said.

There is also an accompanying resolution opposing the releasing of balloons that probably will pass. However, Thibodeau said that while “a resolution is definitely going to make a statement…it gets a little bit lost. An ordinance is certainly for perpetuity on the books.”

There is a growing awareness on the Outer Banks of the danger to wildlife that a balloon release poses. Southern Shores passed a resolution at its March 12 Town Council meeting opposing the release of helium-filled balloons. Additionally, according to Willo Kelly, CEO of the Outer Banks Association of Realtors, that organization has also taken action on the issue.

“Prohibiting the release is not within our purview, but we are encouraging our members to use pinwheels instead of helium balloons and to educate them as far as the negative environmental impacts of using helium balloons in their marketing,” Kelly said.

On its website, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service points out the dangers posed by balloons, explaining that “Birds, turtles and other animals commonly mistake balloons for food, which can harm or even kill them.” It also notes that the strings used to hold balloons together also be a threat, noting that “many animals can become entangled in balloon strings, which can strangle them or hurt their feet and hands.”

If there is a local driving force behind the growing awareness of the impact a ballon release can have on the environment, it is Debbie Swick of Southern Shores.

Swick, who is active in a number of Outer Banks organizations, including N.E.S.T and the OBX Marine Mammal Stranding Network, remembers camping on the Outer Banks as early as 1974. She also recalls what first motivated her to begin her campaign to stop the use of balloon releases.

There was a balloon release in memory of a young lady who had passed and as the camera followed the release of “100, pink and yellow balloons…up to the North Carolinian blue sky…and the crowd cheered, I started to sob,” she said. “Something stirred inside of me that day.”

The danger from balloons drifting out to sea and affecting marine life is real and has been documented. As recently as November of last year, a rarely seen juvenile Gervais’ Beaked Whale beached on Emerald Island.

“It was a nursing calf and it died because it ingested a helium balloon and it blocked its digestive tract, so the animal feels that it’s always full and stops feeding,” Swick said. “It starved to death.”

Swick has spoken to the town councils and commissioners in Duck, Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills and Nags Head. She has not yet been to Manteo “because of scheduling.” She has also sent information to Dare County Commissioners.

What she points out in her presentations is that when released, the balloons can drift as far as 1,300 miles and that, especially in a coastal environment, they almost invariably end up in the ocean.

“Naturally being on the coast, it’s going go out to sea,” she said.

It is about education, Swick told the Voice, and how people feel about where they live and come to visit. “These are communities that are loved,” she said. “Everybody that lives here loves where we live. The visitors that come here, come here because they love it too.”



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  • Part Time OBX'r

    A local Ordinance will not stop releases from surrounding states or anywhere on the East Coast for that matter. A better solution would to focus your time and effort to get Legislation to have these balloons outlawed and make the balloon manufacturers create/invent biodegradable ‘balloons’ that will dissolved or degrade as soon as they hit water or within 6-12 months.

    Tuesday, Apr 2 @ 1:50 pm
  • WindyBill

    Hooray for Duck! Or should we say “QUACK!!

    Tuesday, Apr 2 @ 2:19 pm
  • Glenn

    Hope the ordinance passes and that similar actions are taken from towns all throughout the OBX. Extremely dangerous to marine life to release balloons.

    Tuesday, Apr 2 @ 2:36 pm
  • Great Idea

    Great Idea. Will this be enforced like the No Fireworks ban?

    Tuesday, Apr 2 @ 3:09 pm
  • Beth Lyle-Durham

    An Excellent Idea!! Am in favor of banning any balloon releases in Duck. My husband and I pick up debris and give ourselves added points for finding balloons. They do not belong near any waterside, which is, DUCK. Now if we could also eliminate plastic bags again. I have noticed a tenfold amount since the ban was repealed a few years back. More hazards for the innocent.

    Tuesday, Apr 2 @ 4:48 pm
  • Part Time Genius

    OBX’r thinks a balloon released in Maine will fly all the way to the Outer Banks without popping…

    Tuesday, Apr 2 @ 6:31 pm
  • Surf123

    The sirens of the fun police are closing in on us. Find affordable housing and living wages for everyone in the county and then we can look at your balloon nonsense.

    Tuesday, Apr 2 @ 6:35 pm