Few things are as beautiful as the fluid grace of a translucent jellyfish undulating through the water — which makes the fact that they seem to be multiplying at an alarming rate, and wreaking havoc along the way, somewhat disconcerting.
A swarm of the gelatinous creatures, known as a jellyfish bloom, made the news last week when moon jellyfish from the Baltic Sea invaded the cooling pipes of a Swedish nuclear power plant, causing the shutdown of one of the units for four days.
In the past 30 years, jellyfish blooms have been increasingly responsible for knocking out fish farms, clogging plumbing in power plants, and creating a significant economic impact on the fishing and tourism industries.
And we have no one but ourselves to blame.
"There are systems in which jellyfish have increased," Mark Gibbons, a researcher at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, told NBC News, "and that can be clearly attributed to our influence."
Overfishing has cleared some fish populations, allowing jellyfish to take their place. As well, the opening of the Suez Canal paved the way for some 600 species to pulse their way into places unreachable before, driving native marine dwellers to extinction.
In the meantime, global climate change and its warmer water are increasing the range of places where they thrive. Scientists analyzing record of jellyfish sightings from as far back as 1729 in the Adriatic Sea have found that jellyfish bloom cycles are increasing in frequency and lasting longer.
And if that weren’t enough, we’ve been inadvertently building perfect nesting environments in the form of undersea construction. Marine harbors and offshore oil rig platform, as well as the sandy bases of offshore windmills, all create a delightfully cozy spot well-suited for jellyfish breeding grounds.
It’s like a perfect storm for jellyfish. And as deleterious encounters with jellyfish are not expected to diminish, researchers are trying to come up with ways to cope.
One idea has been the ol’ jellyfish-shredding robot, designed by researchers at the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. Called the "Jellyfish Elimination Robotic Swarm" (JEROS) the thing slinks through the ocean and devours all jellyfish unfortunate enough to cross its path, capable of pulverizing them at a rate of 1,985 pounds per hour.
It’s a rather harsh solution – as evidenced by the YouTube video of the shredder in action, jellyfish enthusiasts be warned – and it may actually be counterproductive. Robert Condon, a jellyfish research scientist with the Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, says that the jellyfish-decimating robot may actually create more jellyfish, reports the Los Angeles Times
"Grinding up jellyfish is a quick fix if it is outside a nuclear power plant, but it doesn't stop the jellyfish from reproducing. While the grinder may kill the jellyfish, it is likely not a fine enough grind to destroy the jellyfish's eggs and sperm,” Condon said. “Effectively you are mixing up all the egg and sperm in one spot and increasing the chance of them finding each other. If it is designed to stop a bloom in a particular area, it won't do that."
And as Jellywatch.org notes, jellyfish are very important; they are food for a number of marine animals such as large fish and turtles and provide habitat for many juvenile fishes in areas where there are not many places to hide. They also protect small fish from being eaten by predators and provide transportation for a number of crabs that hitchhike on the top of jellyfish.
Even so, with their proliferation has come other ideas about how to handle them. One of the most sensible solutions would be finding a way to make them more pleasing to the palate. Jellyfish have been a staple in the Far East for thousands of years; they are a low-fat, high-protein source of nutrients — although the taste is bland and the texture is a strange mix of crunchy and chewy.
If only food scientists could find a way to make them taste like bacon, the problem would be solved … to the dismay of jellyfish, but to delight of pigs everywhere.
National Geographic reports on the blooms in the video below:
Related stories on MNN: