Two weeks ago, I joined 220 scientists from every continent except Antarctica for five days of jam-packed gelatinous joy in Barcelona. The Jellyfish Blooms Symposium started fifteen years ago with just a few dozen or so scientists gathering in Alabama. But as many of the original conveners pointed out, both attendance and interest have bloomed over the years, not unlike the phenomenon which the meeting explores.
There were so many outstanding talks and so many gems of information that I won’t be able to cram them all into my book so I’ll be covering as many of them here as I can. And to start, this blog is going to focus on just one species: the fried egg jellyfish (Cotylorhiza tuberculata), which I’m Vanna Whiting in the picture.
The yolkish dome and whitish rim that make up its bell are the reason for the animal’s culinary name. And this colorful creature is common in the Mediterranean, especially around Spain and Italy, where food is always on your mind anyway. The pigments come, not from the jellyfish, but from microscopic algae that live in the animal’s tissues like a photosynthetic tattoo. They use light to make sugars which they feed to the jellyfish in exchange for a safe place to live. The jellyfish’s close cousins, corals, are engaged in the same sort of symbiosis, although warming temperatures are putting that marriage at risk across the globe.
Following the meeting, my husband Keith and I took a field trip six hours south of Barcelona to Mar Menor, the Mediterranean’s largest lagoon – a little bigger than the area of San Francisco, where jellyfish became a chronic problem starting in the 1990’s. It wasn’t that jellyfish were never seen in Mar Menor before the 1990’s, it was just that they weren’t very abundant. Researchers in the area blame increased tourism and increased agriculture for adding heavy loads of fertilizer into the enclosed seas, stimulating the food chain and offering a rich buffet to the jellyfish.
When the problems began, they escalated precipitously. A survey in 1993 pegged the summer fried egg population at 27.5 million. In 2001, that number nearly tripled to 70 million. In 2002, one researcher told me that you couldn’t drive a boat through the water there were so many jellies. Recent studies showed that the fried egg jellyfish have fully established themselves in the lagoon. Every stage of their life cycle has been discovered there: the sedentary polyp, the ephyrae (or baby stage), and of course entire omelets of adult medusae.
The warm calm waters of the region make tourism a huge part of the economy, but no one wants to swim in yolky waters or get stung by jellyfish. So the regional government established a Medusas program to keep tourists safe from the jellies. It is a two-pronged effort, with some fishermen paid to catch the jellies instead of shrimp and others paid to set up and maintain jellyfish nets that cage off the beaches from the blooms.
Through one of the Spanish scientists at the Jellyfish Blooms meeting, I was introduced the wonderful Cristina Mena, who teaches marine science a the local technical college, and who offered to take us on a tour of the docks where the fishermen bring in their catch. There, we lucked into meeting her friend, Victor Moreno, one of the divers responsible for installing and repairing the jellyfish nets. I asked Victor if it would be possible for me to see some of the netting. He pointed at the waist-high heaps of green net and rope right next to where we were standing. “That’s half of it,” he said.
Each summer roughly 40 kilometers, or 25 miles, of coastline are surrounded with nets. They extend 200 meters offshore and are secured at the bottom with cement moorings. The bottoms of the nets are lined with lead so that there is no room for the jellies, which migrate to the surface during the day and to the bottom at night, to slip under the nets. It takes about three weeks for the entire install and we had arrived when about half the project had been completed. Victor then graciously offered to take us on a tour of some of the beaches where nets were already in place. Except, we needed tapas first.
After being duly fortified with the most delectable, crispy, salty calamari I’ve ever eaten, briny mussels, savory anchovies, cold Spanish beer, and an ambrosia called cafe asiatico, we clambered onto Victor’s boat and cruised the north end of Mar Menor.
Cristina later sent me pictures showing the Medusas operation, both the collecting and netting, which are better than mine and which show the scale of the mitigation effort.
Among the photos were pictures of the half dozen fishing boats bringing their jellyfish catch to a larger boat out in the center of the lagoon. The jellyfish are then offloaded to a dump near the airport where, because they are 95% water, they mostly evaporate. I don’t know how much the Medusas program costs, but I do know that it employs 12 fishermen, 4 divers, 2 safety officers, and a manager full time for three months a year. It isn’t cheap.
Victor told me that so far this year the jellyfish numbers had been low, and that they were low last year as well. I asked if the mitigation efforts, the fishermen removing the medusae, had diminished the populations.
Cristina answered that it’s hard to know. What makes jellyfish bloom one year and bust another is complicated and poorly understood. “People don’t like the medusas, so they like that we collect them. But it doesn’t get at the root of the problem, which is the input of fertilizers.” And she said there aren’t plans to mitigate the sewage or the agricultural runoff.
UPDATE: Because Mar Menor has been looking oddly green since I visited, there’s new talk of installing “green filters” to abate the inflow of nutrients.
Earlier in the week at the Jellyfish Blooms meeting, I had heard Italian scientist Antonella Leone talk about the potential for harvesting Mediterranean jellyfish for food. High in protein, low in calories, and packed with anti-oxidant properties, there’s a growing awareness that jellyfish could be a future crop from the sea. She pointed out that the fried egg jellyfish, likely because of its symbiotic algae, are particularly high in two healthy marine lipids, omega-3 and omega-6, which are praised for being anti-inflammatory, antidepressant, and even involved in lowering risk of heart disease.
So if in the future you stop for tapas before touring the beaches of Mar Menor, along with your calamari and beer you might enjoy a healthy bite of marinaded fried egg jellyfish. It just might be a little sunny-side (up) to the situation.