The United Nations Environment Programme’s ‘Patron of the Oceans’ has called on Gibraltar to open a public debate on the environmental impact of balloon releases, urging the community to find a greener way of celebrating Gibraltarian identity on National Day.
Lewis Pugh, who travels the world campaigning for marine protection, spent two days in Gibraltar this week in top-level meetings to try and kick-start an awareness campaign on the subject.
He met with Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, the Minister for Environment Dr John Cortes, the Chairman of the SDGG Richard Buttigieg and Albert Yome from GONHS.
“I think one of the worse things about this whole thing is that it sends entirely the wrong message to our children and our neighbours,” Mr Pugh said.
“It legitimises and normalises pollution.”
“You have the tax payer paying to pollute and on top of that you have all the leaders standing there watching this take place and clapping.”
Mr Pugh posed the following question: How can the people of Gibraltar celebrate this very important day in a way that is sustainable and does not impact the environment?
“It is not really for me to come up with ideas and this is what I said to them,” Mr Pugh told the Chronicle after his meetings.
“We were sitting in a meeting, there were five people and I said, you know there is no way that us five people are going to have the creativity of 33,000 people.”
“The Chief Minister said to me, we need to have a public debate about this, we need to have people saying how they think, to say what other ways we can celebrate this day in a way which is sustainable.”
Mr Picardo said he had been pleased to meet Mr Pugh and hear about his “great work” for the world’s oceans, adding that it was time to open a wide discussion on this issue.
“The issues he raised with me in relation to the balloon release on National Day were thought provoking and something I think the SDGG and indeed the whole community must reflect on,” Mr Picardo said.
“We are not a nation that wants to contribute to damaging our oceans or otherwise damaging the earth.”
“We need to consider carefully what the future manner of celebrating National Day should be.”
“The 10th September is a day when we celebrate our identity.”
“There are surely many ways of doing that which will not damage the oceans, potentially kill precious wildlife and be environmentally damaging.”
“We must think hard as a community and look to the SDGG for consideration of this issue in a sensitive way.”
The SDGG’s Mr Buttigieg said the group is keen to know what the rest of the community feels on this issue, adding that it was “only fair we ask the people” what they want.
“Yes we saw, yes we heard, but we are aware of both perspectives,” he said after meeting Mr Pugh.
“We want to know what the public want.”
The oceans campaigner is no stranger to Gibraltar, having lived here when his father, Surgeon Rear Admiral P.D. Gordon Pugh, ran the Royal Naval Hospital.
He says he has a strong affection for Gibraltar and has visited since, including in 2004 when he attempted – unsuccessfully due to tides – to swim the Strait of Gibraltar.
Mr Pugh said he receives up to 400 emails a day from the public and that balloon releases rank alongside shark finning and whaling as their top concerns. As a result, he has turned this issue into one of the three main campaigns he is focusing on now.
According to Mr Pugh, the fact that Gibraltar releases thousands of balloons annually places it among the worst offenders in the world for pollution of this type.
Mr Pugh believes that better education – not just here, but globally – on how balloons damage the environment would encourage people to think differently about balloon releases.
“This is not specific to Gibraltar, this is worldwide,” he said.
“A lot of people do not know about the impact of balloons.”
Mr Pugh said that balloon releases amounted to “pollution upwards” and that marketing material about biodegradable alternatives and dolphin-friendly balloons was “nonsense”.
He said some animals mistook balloons for food.
“Then one of three things happen, either they get entangled in it, they eat it and it causes problems with their stomach and they starve, or they asphyxiate on it,” he said.
“Balloons lead to the death of our wildlife, especially when you are releasing 15 to 30 thousand. That is an enormous number of balloons.”
And it is not just about the plastic. Balloons are filled with helium, a finite resource that is used in MRI scans, computer chips and deep sea diving.
“It is wasteful and there is no intergenerational justice, in the sense that we are leading our lives in such a way that our children and grandchildren will not have ample supplies of this important gas,” he said.
Photo by DM Parody