In full bloom: What jellyfish tell us about our oceans
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;
Story

In full bloom: What jellyfish tell us about our oceans

Stories/670 , Issues/Environment
Melbourne VIC
14th Apr 2020
In full bloom: What jellyfish tell us about our oceans
Jellyfish are both indicators and drivers of the collapse of marine ecosystems.

Leading jellyfish expert Lisa-Ann Gershwin has a sense of the danger and the wonder of jellyfish. She has, in sheer excitement, snatched up an Irukandji with her bare hands. After 30 terrifying minutes with a bucket of vinegar, she went on unscathed to discover 14 new species of the deadly jelly. 

“Irukandji absolutely stole my heart,” she tells me over the phone. “How can you not be completely, utterly mesmerised by something that’s small and clear and dangerous as hell? “ Since 2012 Lisa has been alerting the world to another kind of danger: jellyfish as indicators and drivers of ecosystem collapse. 

For the last fifty years jellyfish have been appearing in huge numbers in water bodies around the world. These jellyfish ‘blooms’ have clogged up nuclear power plants and military ships, and cost fisheries millions of dollars annually. According to Australian Associated Press, last financial year Australia’s second-largest Atlantic salmon producer felt “a 64 percent drop in full-year profit” when moon jellyfish bloomed around Huan Aquaculture’s salmon farm, suffocating the salmon. Similar events occur frequently in salmon farms around the world and are believed to be linked to higher water temperatures and nutrient waste from the farms themselves. 

These gelatinous creatures can also devastate marine ecosystems. Take the comb jellyfish Mnemiopsis leidyi, which invaded the Caspian Sea in the late 1990s and now occupies much of the waters of the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. At peak bloom, there were two thousand Mnemiopsis per cubic metre in the Caspian Sea. These marine Stormtroopers were capitalising on the already vulnerable ecosystem. 

Human influences put pressure on marine species in the Caspian even before the jellyfish arrived. The ancient beluga sturgeon gis is considered a ‘living fossil’ and is critically endangered because of the relentless overfishing for caviar. The endangered Caspian seal already faced overfishing of their main prey, commercial hunting, chemical and heavy metal pollution, drowning in fishing nets, pollution from oil and gas mining, and deliberate killing by the fishing industry. Then came Mnemiopsis. 

Their penchant for reproduction in all conditions give jellyfish a winning edge in an ocean stressed by human activities. Lisa explains that when resources are scarce, jellyfish clone in polyp form. When food is abundant, or when conditions like salinity or water temperature change suddenly, jellyfish switch tactics and polyps pump miniature jellyfish (medusae) into the water. These medusae devour available food and grow rapidly, resulting in bloom events. Marine biologists believe humans are causing unnaturally large and more frequent blooms by creating stressors that stimulate medusae production, and by weakening competitor species. 

As a prime example, Mnemiopsis wasn’t harmed by the pollutants in the Caspian Sea and thrived on the abundance of zooplankton, fish eggs, and larvae in that diverse ecosystem. With no predators and struggling competitors, Mnemiopsis populations exploded so that by the early 2000s they were outcompeting the beluga sturgeon and endemic Caspian seal for space, oxygen, and food. Further down the food web, the number of zooplankton species in the Caspian dropped from 22 to just three between 1995 and 2002. Eutrophication (nutrient pollution) surged, reducing oxygen levels in the water – these were far from ideal conditions unless you’re a jellyfish. Mnemiopsis continues to bloom in the Caspian with ramifications for the entire ecosystem. 

Other jellyfish species are alerting us to ecosystem changes across the world. Nettle, moon and Australian jellyfish are thriving in the annual dead zone produced by nutrient runoff into the Gulf of Mexico. At 8,776 square miles (14,124 km), the dead zone was at its largest ever in 2017, and its second-largest last year. According to a 2016 study, krill in Antarctic seas have declined by up to 80 percent in the last 40 years, possibly due to warming waters. On the other hand, Antarctic jellyfish are predicted to thrive. In the Sea of Japan, major blooms of the stinging jellyfish Nemopilema nomurai have caused serious profit losses to the local fishing economy and coastal industry. These jellyfish were reportedly seen only once every 30 years in the Sea of Japan but are now sighted every year. 

“Invariably the question of, “Well, what can I do?” always comes up,” says Lisa, referring to her public talks on jellyfish. “And the answer is, we all collectively need to be doing less of the things that are helping jellyfish.” But taken together, the issues of overfishing, warming waters, coastal development, plastic debris, pollution, ocean acidification, and hypoxia seem a little overwhelming. As Lisa puts it, “Everything that we’re doing to damage the ocean is contributing, directly or indirectly, to favouring jellyfish.”

As someone who actively reads biodiversity reports and seeks out Lisa’s TED talks, I’m more inspired than overwhelmed. I’m grateful that these luminous creatures are drawing attention to themselves and the impact we’re having on the 71 percent of the earth’s surface area covered by water. Lisa, who is immersed in the intricacies of the issue, says most of us can only change ourselves. “I personally started becoming a lot more aware of the role that I play as a consumer and as an organism, a living organism.”

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