My daughter was on the beach in Barcelona when I called her today to warn
her about the jellyfish after seeing this. She didn't see any blue flags,


On Mon, Aug 4, 2008 at 9:06 PM, Phil Gasper <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

> August 3, 2008
> *Stinging Tentacles Offer Hint of Oceans' Decline*
> BARCELONA, Spain - Blue patrol boats crisscross the swimming areas of
> beaches here with their huge nets skimming the water's surface. The yellow
> flags that urge caution and the red flags that prohibit swimming because of
> risky currents are sometimes topped now with blue ones warning of a new
> danger: swarms of jellyfish.
> In a period of hours during a day a couple of weeks ago, 300 people on
> Barcelona's bustling beaches were treated for stings, and 11 were taken to
> hospitals.
> From Spain to New York, to Australia, Japan and Hawaii, jellyfish are
> becoming more numerous and more widespread, and they are showing up in
> places where they have rarely been seen before, scientists say. The faceless
> marauders are stinging children blithely bathing on summer vacations,
> forcing beaches to close and clogging fishing nets.
> But while jellyfish invasions are a nuisance to tourists and a hardship to
> fishermen, for scientists they are a source of more profound alarm, a signal
> of the declining health of the world's oceans.
> "These jellyfish near shore are a message the sea is sending us saying,
> 'Look how badly you are treating me,' " said Dr. Josep-María Gili, a leading
> jellyfish expert, who has studied them at the Institute of Marine Sciences
> of the Spanish National Research Council in Barcelona for more than 20
> years.
> The explosion of jellyfish populations, scientists say, reflects a
> combination of severe overfishing of natural predators, like tuna, sharks
> and swordfish; rising sea temperatures caused in part by global warming; and
> pollution that has depleted oxygen levels in coastal shallows.
> These problems are pronounced in the Mediterranean, a sea bounded by more
> than a dozen countries that rely on it for business and pleasure. Left
> unchecked in the Mediterranean and elsewhere, these problems could make the
> swarms of jellyfish menacing coastlines a grim vision of seas to come.
> "The problem on the beach is a social problem," said Dr. Gili, who talks
> with admiration of the "beauty" of the globular jellyfish. "We need to take
> care of it for our tourism industry. But the big problem is not on the
> beach. It's what's happening in the seas."
> Jellyfish, relatives of the sea anemone and coral that for the most part
> are relatively harmless, in fact are the cockroaches of the open waters, the
> ultimate maritime survivors who thrive in damaged environments, and that is
> what they are doing.
> Within the past year, there have been beach closings because of jellyfish
> swarms on the Côte d'Azur in France, the Great Barrier Reef of Australia,
> and at Waikiki and Virginia Beach in the United States.
> In Australia, more than 30,000 people were treated for stings last year,
> double the number in 2005. The rare but deadly Irukandji jellyfish is
> expanding its range in Australia's warming waters, marine scientists say.
> While no good global database exists on jellyfish populations, the
> increasing reports from around the world have convinced scientists that the
> trend is real, serious and climate-related, although they caution that
> jellyfish populations in any one place undergo year-to-year variation.
> "Human-caused stresses, including global warming and overfishing, are
> encouraging jellyfish surpluses in many tourist destinations and productive
> fisheries," according to the National Science Foundation, which is issuing a
> report on the phenomenon this fall and lists as problem areas Australia, the
> Gulf of Mexico, Hawaii, the Black Sea, Namibia, Britain, the Mediterranean,
> the Sea of Japan and the Yangtze estuary.
> In Barcelona, one of Spain's most vibrant tourist destinations, city
> officials and the Catalan Water Agency have started fighting back, trying
> desperately to ensure that it is safe for swimmers to go back in the water.
> Each morning, with the help of Dr. Gili's team, boats monitor offshore
> jellyfish swarms, winds and currents to see if beaches are threatened and if
> closings are needed. They also check if jellyfish collection in the waters
> near the beaches is needed. Nearly 100 boats stand ready to help in an
> emergency, said Xavier Duran of the water agency. The constant squeal of Dr.
> Gili's cellphone reflected his de facto role as Spain's jellyfish control
> and command center. Calls came from all over.
> Officials in Santander and the Basque country were concerned about frequent
> sightings this year on the Atlantic coast of the Portuguese man-of-war, a
> sometimes lethal warm-water species not previously seen regularly in those
> regions.
> Farther south, a fishing boat from the Murcia region called to report an
> off-shore swarm of Pelagia noctiluca - an iridescent purplish jellyfish that
> issues a nasty sting - more than a mile long. A chef, presumably trying to
> find some advantage in the declining oceans, wanted to know if the local
> species were safe to eat if cooked. Much is unknown about the jellyfish, and
> Dr. Gili was unsure.
> In previous decades there were jellyfish problems for only a couple of days
> every few years; now the threat of jellyfish is a daily headache for local
> officials and is featured on the evening news. "In the past few years the
> dynamic has changed completely - the temperature is a little warmer," Dr.
> Gili said.
> Though the stuff of horror B- movies, jellyfish are hardly aggressors. They
> float haplessly with the currents. They discharge their venom automatically
> when they bump into something warm - a human body, for example - from
> poison-containing stingers on mantles, arms or long, threadlike tendrils,
> which can grow to be yards long.
> Some, like the Portuguese man-of-war or the giant box jellyfish, can be
> deadly on contact. Pelagia noctiluca, common in the Mediterranean, delivers
> a painful sting producing a wound that lasts weeks, months or years,
> depending on the person and the amount of contact.
> In the Mediterranean, overfishing of both large and small fish has left
> jellyfish with little competition for plankton, their food, and fewer
> predators. Unlike in Asia, where some jellyfish are eaten by people, here
> they have no economic or epicurean value.
> The warmer seas and drier climate caused by global warming work to the
> jellyfish's advantage, since nearly all jellyfish breed better and faster in
> warmer waters, according to Dr. Jennifer Purcell, a jellyfish expert at the
> Shannon Point Marine Center of Western Washington University.
> Global warming has also reduced rainfall in temperate zones, researchers
> say, allowing the jellyfish to better approach the beaches. Rain runoff from
> land would normally slightly decrease the salinity of coastal waters,
> "creating a natural barrier that keeps the jellies from the coast," Dr. Gili
> said.
> Then there is pollution, which reduces oxygen levels and visibility in
> coastal waters. While other fish die in or avoid waters with low oxygen
> levels, many jellyfish can thrive in them. And while most fish have to see
> to catch their food, jellyfish, which filter food passively from the water,
> can dine in total darkness, according to Dr. Purcell's research.
> Residents in Barcelona have forged a prickly coexistence with their new
> neighbors.
> Last month, Mirela Gómez, 8, ran out of the water crying with her first
> jellyfish sting, clutching a leg that had suddenly become painful and itchy.
> Her grandparents rushed her to a nearby Red Cross stand. "I'm a little
> afraid to go back in the water," she said, displaying a row of angry red
> welts on her shin.
> Francisco Antonio Padrós, a 77-year-old fisherman, swore mightily as he
> unloaded his catch one morning last weekend, pulling off dozens of jellyfish
> clinging to his nets and tossing them onto a dock. Removing a few shrimp, he
> said his nets were often "filled with more jellyfish than fish."
> By the end of the exercise his calloused hands were bright red and swollen
> to twice their normal size. "Right now I can't tell if I have hands or not -
> they hurt, they're numb, they itch," he said.
> Dr. Santiago Nogué, head of the toxicology unit at the largest hospital
> here, said that although 90 percent of stings healed in a week or two, many
> people's still hurt and itched for months. He said he was now seeing 20
> patients a year whose symptoms did not respond to any treatment at all,
> sometimes requiring surgery to remove the affected area.
>  The sea, however, has long been central to life in Barcelona, and that is
> unlikely to change. Recently when the beaches were closed, children on a
> breakwater collected jellyfish in a bucket. The next day, Antonio López, a
> diver, emerged from the water. "There are more every year - we saw hundreds
> offshore today," he said. "You just have to learn how to handle the stings."

Michael Balter
Contributing Correspondent, Science
Adjunct Professor of Journalism,
Boston University

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