Jellyfish return to the nation’s coasts

They’re back!

And we’re not talking hurricanes, though that season is officially underway.

And, no, this is not about sharks, since Discovery’s dubious Shark Week doesn’t start until the end of July.
No, it’s time for the increasingly unpopular annual return of swarms of jellyfish to beaches around the world. Last year they made much of the western Mediterranean unswimmable. A couple of weekend’s ago – the official start of summer — thousands of nasty, golf-ball sized jellyfish washed ashore on a 10-mile stretch of Florida’s east coast, stinging a reported 1,800 swimmers. Red warning flags were posted on beaches from Cocoa Beach to Cape Canaveral.

In large part thanks to the overfishing of big predator fish and warmer ocean waters, jellies are showing up sooner, in bigger numbers and far beyond home territories. In Florida they clogged the shallows and took over the wet sand of the beach. Lifeguard stands stocked up with vinegar-and-water solutions to help try and diffuse the itching, burning and rashes, which I guess beats urinating on them, though its proven that Benadryl cream helps alleviate itching and swelling. Despite air temps in the 90s and water temperature of 79, wetsuits were very popular. Innocent kids picked them up and tossed them at each other, only to be stung. Tough guys waded into the shallows attempting to shrug them off but were quickly running towards the lifeguard stands and that vinegar solution. At least two jelly victims were hospitalized.The beachings are as bad for the jellies as for man; as soon as they hit the sand, they start to die. And there are so many of them huddled en masse in the shallows that they soon run out of food.

It’s not just the abundance of jellyfish in Florida’s that was surprising, it was the species. The critters washing ashore in the thousands were so-called “mauve stingers,” which haven’t washed up on Florida beaches for more than a decade (more common are the blue Portuguese man-of-war or cannonball varieties). Compact but fitted with long tentacles, these are exactly the same jellyfish that harassed Mediterranean beaches during the summer of 2010.

Scientists believe they were transported across the Atlantic in the Gulf Stream, which wraps around the coast of Florida, suggesting they will be a hindrance on many Gator state beaches this summer. Meanwhile across the pond, biologists who study the Irish Sea are blaming a similar boom in jellyfish there on the overfishing of herring, which has given jellyfish an “exponential boost” in population. The trend has been growing since 2005.

Though explanation for why these jellyfish on these beaches is still being studied, it’s clear that since humankind has taken 100 to 120 million tons of predators out of the sea in the past 20 years it’s left plenty of room for jellyfish populations to boom. Jellyfish thrive in disturbed marine ecosystems, from dead zones to seabeds that have been raked by trawling nets. And they are spreading around the world thanks to powerful currents and aided by stowing away on fleets of ships delivering goods around the globe.

In Florida, maybe the only person happier than the pharmacist selling all that Benadryl was a Cocoa Beach, Florida, coconut salesman who claimed the less time people spent actually in the water cooling off, the thirstier they were.

[flickr image via jepoirrier]