Why and How Jellyfish are Taking Over the World’s Oceans

Tim Flannery provides an excellent review of Lisa-ann Gershwin’s new book Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean in this New York Review of Books piece. It’s such a good, thorough review that I am disinclined to read the book.

From the Arctic to the equator and on to the Antarctic, jellyfish plagues (or blooms, as they’re technically known) are on the increase. Even sober scientists are now talking of the jellification of the oceans. And the term is more than a mere turn of phrase. Off southern Africa, jellyfish have become so abundant that they have formed a sort of curtain of death, “a stingy-slimy killing field,” as Gershwin puts it, that covers over 30,000 square miles. The curtain is formed of jelly extruded by the creatures, and it includes stinging cells. The region once supported a fabulously rich fishery yielding a million tons annually of fish, mainly anchovies. In 2006 the total fish biomass was estimated at just 3.9 million tons, while the jellyfish biomass was 13 million tons. So great is their density that jellyfish are now blocking vacuum pumps used by local diamond miners to suck up sediments from the sea floor.

This particular examples notes the collapse of the fishing economy in Bulgaria, Romania, and Georgia:

Would you believe, Gershwin asks, that “a mucosy little jellyfish, barely bigger than a chicken egg, with no brain, no backbone, and no eyes, could cripple three national economies and wipe out an entire ecosystem”? That’s just what happened when theMnemiopsis jellyfish (a kind of comb jelly) invaded the Black Sea. The creatures arrived from the east coast of the US in seawater ballast (seawater a ship takes into its hold once it has discharged its cargo to retain its stability), and by the 1980s they were taking over. Prior to their arrival, Bulgaria, Romania, and Georgia had robust fisheries, with anchovies and sturgeon being important resources. As the jellyfish increased, the anchovies and other valuable fish vanished, and along with them went the sturgeon, the long-beloved source of blini toppings.

By 2002 the total weight of Mnemiopsis in the Black Sea had grown so prodigiously that it was estimated to be ten times greater than the weight of all fish caught throughout the entire world in a year. The Black Sea had become effectively jellified. 

Some of the reasons for jellyfish growth are downright frightening;

One of the fastest breeders of all is Mnemiopsis. Biologists characterize it as a “self-fertilizing simultaneous hermaphrodite,” which means that it doesn’t need a partner to reproduce, nor does it need to switch from one sex to the other, but can be both sexes at once. It begins laying eggs when just thirteen days old, and is soon laying 10,000 per day. Even cutting these prolific breeders into pieces doesn’t slow them down. If quartered, the bits will regenerate and resume normal life as whole adults in two to three days.

Jellyfish are voracious feeders. Mnemiopsis is able to eat over ten times its own body weight in food, and to double in size, each day.

So what exactly is causing the jellyfish to thrive and take over the oceans? The reasons are numerous, and the review elucidates a few of them:

Our waste, such as plastic bags, and fishing methods like drift nets and long lines are busy destroying the few jellyfish predators, such as sea turtles. We are also creating the most splendid jellyfish nurseries. From piers to boat hulls, oil and gas platforms and industrial waste and other floating rubbish, we’re littering the oceans with the kind of artificial hard surfaces that jellyfish polyps love.

Then there is the amount of oxygen dissolved in seawater. Oxygen is created by plants using photosynthesis, and high oxygen levels allow fish and other complex creatures to compete successfully with jellyfish. But the oxygen in water can be depleted far more quickly that it can be replaced. Where humans add nutrients to seawater (such as fertilizer runoff from farms), areas with depleted oxygen, known as eutrophied zones, form. They can occur naturally, but are spreading quickly as the oceans become filled with excess phosphorus and nitrogen derived from a variety of agriculture and industrial human activities. In river estuaries, and in confined waters such as the Baltic, the Black Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico, eutrophied zones have spread to a frightening extent, and they appear to be permanent. Nothing that needs even moderate amounts of oxygen, including fish, shellfish, prawns, and crabs, can survive in them. But the jellyfish thrive.

Compelling read.

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