Gibraltar just banned balloons in bid to save marine life

For years, the tiny British territory at the foot of Spain was among the worst culprits.

Gibraltar just banned balloons in bid to save marine life
Gibraltarians celebrate their National Day in 2013 with the release of 30,000 helium balloons. Photo: AFP

Each September 10 on Gibraltar’s National Day, residents of the Rock cram into Casements Square and in a show of fervent patriotism would whoop and cheer in a sea of red of white.

For 25 years, the highlight of the event was the release of 30,000 red and white helium balloons – one to represent each of Gibraltar’s residents.

“Seeing the red and white balloons floating in the sky has evoked passion and sentiment in a huge number of Gibraltarians as the symbolic representation of our freedom,” insisted a spokesman for the Self Determination for Gibraltar Group, back in 2016.

Then someone pointed out that it wasn’t all that environmentally friendly and in 2016 the mass balloon release was stopped.

READ MORE: Clean seas campaign launched on Spanish coast after sperm whale beached full of plastic

Now authorities there have gone one step further and have introduced legislation banning the deliberate release of helium filled balloons.

“The Government has published Regulations to ban the deliberate release of gas-filled balloons,” said a statement released by the Government of Gibraltar on Thursday.

“This is a measure that ratifies the voluntary decision taken some years ago not to release balloons on National Day, a move that gained great international acclaim,” it continued.

“It will now be an offence to do so, and follows similar legislation in other countries. In this way Government wants to reiterate its commitment to clean seas, free of plastics and other non-biodegradable materials which cause so much harm to wildlife.”

The decision in Gibraltar was made after nearly a decade of campaigning by the Gibraltar Ornithological and Natural History Society and other local organisations to end the polluting practice.

“Balloons are mistaken for food by many species of wildlife, especially turtles. Once balloons have been eaten they can block digestive systems and cause animals to starve. The string on balloons can also entangle and trap animals,” it said in a campaign statement. They balloons can also take years to decompose.

Gibraltar’s position at the mouth of the Mediterranean makes the ban even more important. The Straits of Gibraltar are rich in marine life and migratory birds crossing between Europe and Africa.

READ ALSO: 'Bring your own Tupperware': Carrefour tells shoppers in fight against plastic

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Police operation targets illegal water tapping in Spain

More than 130 people were arrested or placed under investigation for illegal water tapping last year, Spain’s Guardia Civil police said on Wednesday following a huge operation.

Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park”
Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park” in Andalusia. Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP

During the year-long operation, “133 people were arrested or investigated for extracting water through more than 1,533 illegal infrastructure devices”, the police’s environmental unit said in a statement.

A similar operation in 2019 had targeted 107 people.

Spain is one of the European countries most at risk from the impact of drought caused by global warming, scientists say.

Water usage issues are often at the heart of heated political debates in Spain where intensive agriculture plays an important role in the economy.

Police said most of their operations took place “in fragile and vulnerable areas such as the Doñana natural park” in the southern Andalusia region, one of Europe’s largest wetlands and a Unesco World Heritage bird sanctuary.

They were also operating in “in the basins of Spain’s main rivers”.

In Doñana, police targeted 14 people and 12 companies for the illegal tapping of water for irrigation, a police spokesman said.

Ecologists regularly raise the alarm about the drying up of marshes and lagoons in the area, pointing the finger at nearby plantations, notably growing strawberries, which are irrigated by illegally-dug wells.

“The overexploitation of certain aquifers for many reasons, mainly economic, constitutes a serious threat to our environment,” the Guardia Civil said.

The European Court of Justice rapped Spain over the knuckles in June for its inaction in the face of illegal water extraction in Donana which covers more than 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) and is home to more than 4,000 species, including the critically endangered Iberian lynx.

According to the government’s last official estimate, which dates back to 2006, there were more than half a million illegal wells in use.

But in a 2018 study, Greenpeace estimated there were twice as many, calculating that the quantity of stolen water was equivalent to that used by 118 million people — two-and-a-half times the population of Spain.

Spanish NGO SEO/Birdlife also on Wednesday raised the alarm about the “worrying” state of Spain’s wetlands.