Berwick balloon release called off over concerns for animal welfare

A BALLOON release scheduled to take place in Berwick on Monday was cancelled by organisers after being told their stunt could put marine life at risk.

Local campaigners, showing solidarity with Gary McKinnon, who is threatened with extradition to the USA facing charges of hacking into Pentagon computers, agreed to call off the release after being advised by Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB) officer Mel Nicholls of the potential dangers to marine life.

The event in Berwick was intended to support a balloon release that took place on bank holiday Monday from Westminster Bridge in London, to raise awareness of the case.

Local campaigner, Paul Stevenson, said: "We wished to raise awareness of Gary's case, and it is our wish that Gary should face British justice on British soil.

"Gary McKinnon's case is up for judicial review this month on May 25/26, after the general election, and we wish to show support nationally from all aspergers, autism and tourette associations.

"I consulted various authorities to seek approval for the release.

"The Northumberland Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty advised me that even photo-degradable balloons posed a threat to marine wildlife. In all conscience I could not then go ahead with the release of helium-filled balloons and chose the ground-based approach instead."

Mel Nicholls, AONB officer said: "It was appreciated that Paul contacted us about the release. While empathising with the worthy intent of the campaign, I had to inform Paul that the AONB discouraged such balloon releases.

"The Marine Conservation Society has a 'Don't Let Go' campaign which is seeking to get all balloon releases stopped. When balloons are released, they don't just disappear, they float back down to earth where they become particularly dangerous pieces of litter. They are mistaken for food by many species of wildlife. Once balloons have been eaten they can block digestive systems and cause animals to starve. The string on balloons can entangle and trap animals."

He added: "Organisations that are planning balloon releases are encouraged to choose an event that will not threaten wildlife. The society is trying to get every council to ban balloon releases on their land, and many have done so already.

"We do not want to stop people having fun - we just want to protect our vulnerable marine species from more litter. The AONB applauds Paul for his decision to not adversely affect wildlife in pursuit of his campaign."

Photo-degradable balloons are less problematic on land, however, when partially submerged in the sea the reduced UV means the balloons take longer to break down. Also, chemicals in the seawater bond with the balloons further delaying the breakdown. Thus, the balloons remain a hazard for wildlife in the sea far longer than on land.

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