Sunshine Coast Birds

Birding and other wildlife experiences from the Sunshine Coast and elsewhere in Australia - and from overseas - with scribblings about travel, environmental issues, kayaking, hiking and camping.

Thursday 16 February 2017

Seabirds Under Threat: Death by Helium Balloon

Stomach contents of dead albatross on Midway Attoll. Pic Chris Jordan
The deaths of three albatross in south-east Queensland have been linked to their consumption of helium balloons, highlighting a growing threat to seabirds and other marine life around the world posed by the disposal of balloons and other plastic rubbish. One of the balloons was used to promote food outlets in a Brisbane shopping centre.

All three albatross were found dead in 2015. A young Black-browed Albatross (listed internationally as Endangered) was found during a pelagic seabirding trip off Southport. The curling ribbon from a helium ribbon was found floating from the bird's mouth - a clear indication that the attached balloon or balloon remnants had either choked the bird or blocked its gastro-intestinal tract, causing it to starve.

Dead albatross found off Southport. Pic Tod Burrows
On Fraser Island, a Light-mantled Albatross (listed internationally as Near Threatened and another rare visitor to Queensland waters) was found beach-washed. The bird was collected by a member of the public and subjected to a university neocropsy. The examination revealed that a knot from a helium balloon had blocked the gastro-intestinal tract, which had very likely caused its death.

Light-mantled Albatross - balloon knot blocking gastro-intestinal tract

Balloon knot after extraction from Light-mantled Albatross gastro-intestinal tract
Also on Fraser Island, a Grey-headed Albatross (listed internationally as Vulnerable and a rare visitor to Queensland waters) was found beach-washed by a member of the public and was similarly subjected to a university neocropsy. The examination unearthed pieces of plastic and material from two different helium balloons (both shades of red) but it could not be confirmed that the foreign material had killed the bird. Its general condition was poor, with no body fat and wasted muscles; the plastic may have caused it to starve, although many beach-washed seabirds are in poor condition.

Balloon remnants removed from Grey-headed Albatross gut

Balloon remnant found in Grey-headed Albatross
The branding on a balloon in the Grey-headed Albatross matches that of promotional balloons handed out during a twice-yearly food extravaganza promoted by Sunnybank shopping plaza in Brisbane. An estimated 20,000 people came to the last $2 Food Trail in November. The provision of free red helium balloons "for the kids" features prominently in Sunnybank's promotional material. 

Sunnybank Plaza balloon showing same branding as a balloon in an albatross victim, above, and below, the event being promoted. 

You don't need to be Einstein to work out that hundreds and possibly thousands of helium balloons have found their way into the atmosphere from this single source twice a year. The release of helium balloons is used extensively for commercial promotional events, weddings, funerals and all manner of things. When floating balloons reach about 10,000m, they explode and remnants fall to ground or water.

While some manufacturers claim balloons are bio-degradable, they can in fact persist for many months in the environment because of the addition of chemicals and dyes in balloon manufacture. Apart from the danger of balloon remnants blocking gastro-intestinal tracts, the string attached to a balloon can strangle or entrap animals.

Stomach contents of a Midway Attoll albatross - pic Chris Jordan

The balloon remnants are irresistible to seabirds and other marine life. A study last year in the journal Science Advances showed that microplastics produce a dimethyl sulfide smell linked to algae coating the rubbish; the chemical compound is the same cue that triggers some seabirds to forage for krill. Balloon remnants and other plastic rubbish can physically resemble many of the animals preyed upon by seabirds and other marine life.

A series of photographs by Chris Jordan of plastic rubbish found in the guts of dead seabirds at Midway Atoll in the northern Pacific dramatically demonstrates the extent of the problem. A 2013 study in the Marine Pollution Bulletin of nesting Wedge-tailed Shearwaters on Heron Island in the southern Great Barrier Reef - a relatively pristine site - showed 21% of chicks were fed plastic rubbish, with each chick consuming more than 3 pieces of plastic.

The problem is going to get worse, much worse. A 2015 study in the journal Science reported that between 4.8 and 12.7 million metric tons of plastic rubbish enters the sea every year from a mind-boggling 275 million metric tons of plastic waste  produced annually. By 2025, the amount of plastic rubbish could reach 155 metric tons annually unless waste management techniques improve.

According to a 2015 report by the National Academy of Science in the U.S., concentrations of plastic pollution in the ocean have reached 580,000 pieces per square kilometre.  Analysis of studies reported in the literature between 1962 and 2012 revealed that 29% of individual seabirds had plastic in their gut.

Back to the local helium balloons. NSW is the only Australian state or territory to impose controls on their use, prohibiting the release of 20 or more balloons at a time. The Sunshine Coast Council in Queensland is the only local authority in the country to ban the release of balloons into the atmosphere, with the city of Ipswich considering a similar move. 

The albatross deaths highlight the deficiencies of these controls. Seabirds don't recognise local authority boundaries. Balloons released in Brisbane killed albatross found on Fraser Island. Limits on numbers of balloons released simultaneously won't account for thousands being given away individually at commercial events, as in the case of Sunnybank Plaza.

Wandering Albatross, this one alive, for the moment
In Queensland at least, there is no light on the horizon. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has declared there will be no ban on helium balloons in her state. "We are not going to be doing that," the Premier said. "So let's just put that to rest, that's it, end of story."

A small glimmer of hope. When I contacted Sunnybank Plaza, their marketing manager, Liza Smith, who oversees the food festival event, was horrified at news of the seabird deaths. Ms Smith says that coincidentally, Sunnybank Plaza had decided in the past week not so supply helium balloons at future events. "There is an awareness that this is not a great thing to be doing," Liza said.

Amen to that. A petition for a nation-wide ban on helium balloons can be found here.

Advances 2016
 Together, these results suggest that plastic debris emits the scent of a marine infochemical, creating an olfactory trap for susceptible marine wildlife. We demonstrate experimentally that marine-seasoned microplastics produce a dimethyl sulfide (DMS) signature that is also a keystone odorant for natural trophic interactions. We further demonstrate a positive relationship between DMS responsiveness and plastic ingestion frequency using procellariiform seabirds 
To investigate what attracts birds to debris, the scientists put beads made from the three most common types of plastic - high-density polyethylene, low-density polyethylene, and polypropylene - into the ocean at Monterey Bay and Bodega Bay, off the California coast. Three weeks later, the beads were collected and the smell they gave off was analysed  -The plastic was found to give off a sulfur compound, dimethyl sulfide (DMS), linked to the algae which coated the floating plastic. The same team had previously shown that DMS is the chemical cue that triggers certain seabirds to forage for krill - or as the scientists put it “the birds’ version of a dinner bell”