Turtle Heroes: Third Graders Make Our Oceans Safer for Sea Turtles and Other Marine Species

Summer 2002 Issue Articles:

* Cuba Withdraws Hawksbill Trade Proposal, New Threat Emerges from the Cayman Islands
* Turtle Heroes: Third Graders Make Our Oceans Safer for Sea Turtles and Other Marine Species

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Turtle Heroes: Third Graders Make Our Oceans Safer for Sea Turtles and Other Marine Species

By Gary Appelson

Students from Ms.Siegelman’s class display posters to show support for the law that would ban the release of helium balloons. Photo Courtesy of Ms. Siegelman

Don’t tell teacher Robyn Siegelman and her students that kids can’t make a difference. Ms. Siegelman and her third grade class from Nassakeag Elementary School on Long Island, New York, were successful in getting the Suffolk County Legislature to pass, by a vote of 15 to one, a new law banning the release of more than 25 helium balloons at one time within the county.

Legislator Lynne Nowick introduced the legislation after Ms. Siegelman and her students told her about the negative impact balloons have on sea turtles and other marine wildlife.

“It just started out as a letter writing and academic exercise tied to Earth Day. We never thought it would result in the passage of a new law!,” said Ms. Siegelman.

The students researched marine issues and the impacts of plastic litter on the marine environment. The kids discovered that the leatherback, one of the most endangered sea turtles, is a frequent visitor to the North Atlantic area and that this species could mistake Mylar and other plastic litter for jellyfish, its primary food source. The legislation was opposed by The Balloon Council, the national balloon manufacturer’s trade association. Several members of the County Legislature initially spoke against the bill.

At the request of Suffolk County officials and in support of Ms. Siegelman’s class, Sea Turtle Survival League’s (STSL) Advocacy Coordinator Gary Appelson provided legislators with data and research reports on the impacts of plastic ingestion by sea turtles, quantities of plastic and balloon debris in the marine environment and the slow degrade time of plastic balloons in the ocean. Appelson also helped generate both local and national support for the legislation from the sea turtle community.

“Every call, every letter, every word of encouragement helped propel this measure towards passage,” said Dave Ryan, Legislative Aide to Lynne Nowick. “Without the input of the students and others, we could not have provided the information and sound arguments that swayed the legislation from being a frivolous matter to a seriously considered issue.”

Legislator Nowick expressed her thanks to everyone, including the STSL and other turtle advocates, who contributed to the victory. Nowick especially recognized the efforts of Ms. Siegelman’s class in educating the public and lobbying the elected officials in their area.

STSL commends legislator Nowick, Ms. Siegelman, and especially the children of Ms. Siegelman’s third grade class. The impact of their efforts will go far beyond the initial letter writing campaign. Elected officials, family and friends, the media and many others have learned about the hazards of balloon releases — and laws have been changed. The students’ actions also demonstrate how we can all act and live in ways that lessen our impacts on the environment. Legislator Nowick, Ms. Siegelman and her students are truly “Turtle Heroes.”

Editors note: The state of New York has considered, but failed to pass, a similar balloon ban for years. Inspired by Ms. Siegelman’s students, the New York Assembly will soon be revisiting the issue!