Commentary: Rise of the jellyfish

It was the invasion of the surreal: thousands and thousands of gelatinous sea creatures, with their dangling venomous tentacles, overwhelming the cooling canal of the St. Lucie nuclear power plant, washing up against the turtle protection nets, clogging the intake screens.

So many jellyfish filled the canal that Florida Power & Light shut down the St. Lucie reactor for two days.

The translucent creatures had been sucked through giant ocean intake pipes, pumped under the dunes and into the canal, with enough trauma to break off tentacles and create another kind of horror show. A marine scientist told me that the canal water became “a tentacle soup,” and thousands of fish, including 400-pound goliath groupers, died, probably from stings around the gills.

“We have jellyfish blooms every year. But this was an explosion,” said Doug Andrews of FPL. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The plant was shut down as a precautionary measure on Aug. 22, Andrew said. And divers worked a 24-hour-a-day operation, pulling thousands of dead and dying moon jellyfish out of the water. The clean-up went on for weeks. Andrews described semiopaque creatures with small pink circles at their core. Tons of them. “It was an amazing freak of nature,” Andrews said.

Except that the once freakish blooms of jellyfish are no longer so unusual. A month before the St. Lucie incident, enormous invasions of jellyfish similarly caused shutdowns of nuclear reactors in Shimane, Japan, and Dunbar, Scotland, and to Israel’s biggest electric plant, a coal-fueled operation in Hadera.

A jellyfish bloom was blamed for a massive salmon kill in the Irish Sea in 2007, in waters once regarded as too cold for this kind of phenomenon. A bloom was also blamed for ruining commercial fishing off Angola, in southern Africa.

Last year, fishermen in Japan’s Wakasa Bay found 450-pound orange Nomura jellyfish the size of refrigerators fouling their nets.

Earlier this year, the Chinese Academy of Sciences assigned 30 marine scientists to look into the sudden increase in jellyfish blooms and their devastating effect on commercial fishing. The academy said blooms that once occurred in 40-year cycles now come every year.

Even stranger, freshwater jellyfish have been discovered lately in lakes of Canada, Minnesota and New Hampshire.

Jonathan Gorham, a marine biologist with Inwater Research Group, the non-profit group overseeing the sea turtle protection program at the St. Lucie plant, said he had seen jellyfish blooms in the Gulf of Mexico last summer large enough to disrupt the shrimp harvest.

The invasions of July and August, of course, are anecdotes — data points, Gorham called them — but they coincide, unhappily, with scientific theories that jellyfish, which seem to thrive in warmer waters, are harbingers of global climate change. Marine scientists also wonder whether the anecdotal rise of jellyfish might have to do with the decline of fisheries (less competition for smaller marine life), or from the agricultural nutrients that pollute the oceans. Jellyfish seem to do well in oxygen-depleted dead zones that kill most fish.

Pick your theory. Or all of above. Jellyfish seem to be one of those creatures, like rats, that can adapt to the environmental disasters fomented by man.

But there’s some good news along with the sting of the jellyfish tentacles. (Rub a little white vinegar on the wound). Gorham said that jellyfish are a staple of the sea turtle’s diet. The endangered turtles will eat well.

And after the salmon and grouper and sea bass and snapper have disappeared, we can emulate sea turtles and dine on jellyfish. Eddie Lin, author of Extreme Cuisine, called collagen-rich jellyfish the “food solution” to the coming global warming crisis.

Chinese restaurants, the authentic joints, already serve jellyfish. Usually with sesame oil and rice vinegar over noodles. The food solution to our overheated future is said to have a crunchy texture.

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