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“Reading this book should inspire heightened respect for these typically translucent creatures, some notable for their sophisticated stinging apparatus, some for their rainbow-colored bands of iridescent cilia, some for their ability to flash, sparkle or glow with their own living light—all, in a sense, ‘living fossils,’ considering their ancient lineage. . . . By picking out jellyfish and telling their stories, Lisa-ann Gershwin masterfully shows how they and we are hitched together—and to everything else in the universe.”
At the Mercy of Jellyfish
Here we are at the dawn of a new millennium, in the age of cyberspace and we are at the mercy of jellyfish.
—Editorial in the Philippine Star, December 1999
How to Cripple a Nuclear Warship (Queensland, Australia, July 2006)
The United States Navy boasts ten Nimitz class nuclear-powered aircraft supercarriers, the largest of their kind. They weigh 100,000 tons, extend 1,092 feet, stand more than 77 yards high above the waterline, and cost $4.5 billion each. The flight deck covers 1.82 hectares and houses 80 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. These warships are built to operate for 20 years without refueling and to withstand any threat that a military's might or nature's wrath can hurl at them.
The ninth in its class, the USS Ronald Reagan was commissioned on 12 July 2003. Just three years later on its maiden deployment, the world's most modern aircraft carrier, with a crew of 6,000 and capable of taking on an entire nation's armed forces, met its match. Brisbane, Australia, was its first foreign port of call. On 27 July 2006, thousands of jellyfish were sucked into the condensers (which take in seawater and cool down the ship's engines) while the ship was docked in the Port of Brisbane ("Jellyfish Take On U.S. Warship" 2006; Mancuso 2006).
The incident diminished the ship's ability to condense steam from the turbines, rendering them less efficient. To preserve power while the jellyfish were cleared from the condensers, the ship had to shut down several onboard systems and switch over to generators. Local fire crews were placed on standby while full on-board capacities were disabled. As a result, the ship cut short its Brisbane visit. Perhaps tongue-in-cheek or perhaps being somewhat economical with the truth, the commander of US Naval Air Forces called this incident an "acute case of fouling."
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Jellyfish. Stings. Slime and jiggle. "Ick-factor." Stealthy. Spooky. Scary. Alien. Lethal. Jellyfish elicit fear, especially en masse. As silent as a school of sharks, as relentless as a swarm of bees. And they are on the increase.
Jellyfish blooms are nothing new. In fact, fossil evidence shows us that jelly fish have been blooming for hundreds of millions of years. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, it became fashionable for naturalists to report all sorts of odd and unusual events from the natural world. The early issues of the journal Nature and others like it are full of such interesting tidbits. One such report described Aurelia as so abundant in Kiel Bay, Germany, that an oar pushed down between the jellyfish remained standing upright (Möbius 1880). Today, just about any bay or harbor has Aurelia shoals so dense that one may wonder whether there is actually enough water between each jellyfish for it to obtain enough oxygen to survive.
So while the fact of jellyfish blooms is not new, what does appear to be new is the increasing frequency and duration of blooms and the similar effect they are having on dissimilar ecosystems. The most surprising part isn't the blooms, per se, but that it got "this bad" without us noticing.
Some jellyfish bloom incidents from around the world are highlighted below. In many cases there may be an obvious anthropogenic cause—something that we humans have done to disturb the ecosystem sufficiently to cause a wobble—but such a cause is not always immediately apparent. Some blooms are of such minor consequence as to almost raise a smirk or a giggle, while others cause enormous financial loss, ecosystem shifts, infrastructure problems, medical problems, or even human death.
* * *
To most people, jellyfish problems are about stings. The public health aspects of jellyfish blooms can be personally stressful and can greatly impact tourism. Increasingly, jellyfish blooms are also impacting fisheries and industrial endeavors, such as power stations and desalination plants. These problems of human inconvenience are the subject of this chapter, while more serious problems of shifting ecosystems are presented in the next chapter.
* * *
Jellyfish have an uncanny knack for getting stuck. In pipes. On nets. Against screens. Like the proverbial bull in a china shop, jellyfish simply will get stuck if even remotely possible. Imagine a piece of thin, flexible plastic wrapper in a pool, where it can drift almost forever without sinking, until it gets sucked against the outflow mesh. Such is the problem with jellyfish. Most are unable to swim against a current, and so, when even the gentlest flow leads them toward artificial structures, such as screens, pipes, and nets, things go badly. Very badly.
Jellyfish and the Military Coup (Philippines, December 1999)
The Philippines has long had unstable governments. Military raids and hostile takeovers are an ever-present concern. After only a year in office, Philippine president Joseph Estrada was already on shaky ground, with pundits questioning whether he would complete his term to 2004.
So when on the night of 10 December 1999, some 40 million people across the northern half of the country were suddenly plunged into darkness by a power outage, many thought a coup d'état was underway. It was not: this time the enemy was ... jellyfish.
In fact, fifty truckloads of jellyfish had been sucked into the seawater cooling system of the coal-fired Sual power station, causing a cascading blackout ("Asia: Dark Days" 1999).
Estrada was meeting with senators at the time of the power failure and remained in the dark for ten minutes before generators could restore the power. The public, however, remained in the dark until the following day when the crisis could be rectified and its cause clarified.
This incident made international headlines. Media all over the world reported it first as a coup, then with a bit of a giggle.
* * *
Jellyfish against Nuclear Power (California, October 2008)
Of all peculiar associations that one could possibly imagine, this may well be the most bizarre. Long before jellyfish first pulsated through my fascinations, back when I was trying to "find myself," I joined an antinuclear protest. I was not quite eighteen. It was a good cause, and I still believe in it, though I must say I get arrested less often for it these days.
The 2,240-megawatt Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant supplies power to over 1.5 million homes in California. It is located on the picturesque coast at Avila Beach near San Luis Obispo, California, where it was built on two known earthquake faults, about 250 kilometers (150 miles) upwind of Los Angeles. In September 1981, the plant was due to begin low-power testing, which triggered a massive public demonstration—the largest act of civil disobedience in US antinuclear history—and I was one of about 1,900 people who were arrested in peaceful protest, along with the actor Martin Sheen. And yes, for the record, I wore my patchwork jeans, my tie-dye shirt, and my "One-Love" armband. Of course.
Skip ahead: when I first began working with jellyfish in 1992 in Southern California, the species that most caught my fancy was what I thought could be a new species of moon jellyfish. It certainly was quite different from others I was working with, Aurelia aurita, which was the only accepted species of Aurelia at the time. Drilling down into the nomenclatural history of the group, I found that this "new species" had actually been formally named and classified some 175 years earlier, as Aurelia labiata (see plate 2), and that the act of merging them under one species name many years earlier had been an error. Through revalidation in a technical publication (Gershwin 2001), the species again became recognized.
Now skip ahead again: in 2008, I was living in Australia, far away from Aurelia labiata and nuclear power demonstrations. On 21 October, news hit that a species of jellyfish—none other than Aurelia labiata—had been sucked into the cooling water intake racks of the Diablo Canyon plant in such huge numbers as to cover 80 percent of one rack and 40 percent of another. The incident triggered a total shutdown of containment 2 and reduction to half power of containment 1 ... for three days (DiSavino 2008). At last, the jellyfish were able to do what decades of activists had failed to accomplish.
But this isn't just a story about one's scientific progeny "doing their master's bidding"; this is about jellyfish blooms out of control, causing millions of dollars of loss in a man-made system that simply cannot stop the avalanche of nature out of balance. If this were an isolated incident, perhaps it would be entertaining. But it's not.
Another nuclear power plant with similar problems is the Madras Atomic Power Station in Kalpakkam, India. Unscheduled outages due to jellyfish occurred on 30 October 1983, 4 November 1983, and 21 April 1985 (Rajagopal, Nair, and Azariah 1989). In fact, these are just a few of the many such incidents that occur regularly there. From February 1988 to April 1989, staff-counted the number of jellyfish removed from the intake screens. The total for the 15-month study period was over 4 million. The heaviest infestation was in May 1988, with over 1.5 million removed (about 315 tons); the maximum quantity collected on any one day was a whopping 31 tons, on 21 July 1988. During May 1988, 12 of the 16 weld mesh screens were severely damaged by jellyfish; during other months, 16 gates were damaged.
A decade later, the problem recurred. During 1995–1996, the plant was plagued by up to 18 tons of jellyfish a month, necessitating shutdowns costing about 5.5 million (approximately $122,000) per day (Masilamoni et al. 2000). During that year, peaks in jellyfish arrivals coincided with the reversal of coastal water currents during the two monsoon seasons, that is, early June for the southwest monsoon and November for the northeast monsoon.
There's Just Something about Power Plants ...
Strangely enough, power plants in general seem to be somewhat magnetic when it comes to jellyfish problems (see plate 4). Nuclear plants and nonnuclear plants. Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere. Plants drawing cooling water from the oceans, or bays, or estuaries, or lagoons.
Around 1960, Japanese authorities began to notice increasing problems with the moon jellyfish Aurelia aurita clogging intake pipes. By 1969, it was reported that "almost all domestic electric power companies have been suffering from the damages since 1965" (Matsueda 1969, 187). The authors of that report noted that four power stations were subject to frequent jellyfish attacks, which in 1967 alone caused eight load restrictions and six shutdowns. At one station, jellies removed from intake screens between May and August amounted to 2,000 tons, reaching as much as 150 tons a day. Just to give an idea of how pervasive this problem is, more than 30 additional major nuisance events with jellyfish vexing power plants are listed in table 1 in the appendix—these are just the ones that have been reported.
And the jellyfish ingress problem isn't just with power plants. Desalination plants have also been afflicted: some are listed in table 2 in the appendix. In fact, the ingress problem isn't limited to power plants and desalination plants, but can involve any type of intake screens in regions where jellyfish occur. Indeed, even the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, one of the first places in the world to successfully culture and display jellyfish, was plagued by one of its "babies"—a species for which it had resolved the life cycle a decade earlier and has been cultivating since. In August 2009, millions of the brown sea nettle Chrysaora fuscescens bloomed in Monterey Bay (see plate 3), clogging the aquarium's seawater intake screens (Tucker 2010). These jellyfish grow to the size of basketballs, so one might imagine that millions of them might have a collectively large appetite. The aquarium blamed the bloom on ideal feeding conditions caused by high nitrate levels in the water. Of course, the curious would ask why the nitrate levels were so high (the issue of sewage and fertilizer pollution is the subject of chapter 7).
Intensive research around the world on methods to keep jellyfish away from the intakes of power stations and desalination plants has had mixed but interesting results. Chemical repellents don't work, because jellyfish drift on the current and can't respond. Electric shocks don't work for the same reason. Acoustic shocks don't work, because jellyfish, not having a brain, aren't afraid of noise. Bubble curtains don't work because the bubbles kill them and, alive or dead, they block the flow of water all the same. Biocides don't work for the same reason. Diversional nets don't work because they foul too quickly and can't be left in place. Research continues. And so do ingress problems.
* * *
It's easy to see how passively drifting jellyfish can become entrained in the powerful intake currents of desalination plants and power station cooling systems. Alas, it doesn't take much of a current to entrain a jellyfish....
Particular Issues with Salmon Farms (Estuaries and Bays Globally, since 1997)
Jellyfish seem to really like salmon farms. Or given the damage they cause, perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that jellyfish really don't like salmon farms.
New Zealand. In November 1998, a massive salmon kill occurred at Stewart Island, off the far southeast of New Zealand's South Island. A swarm of large Aurelia had moved into Big Glory Bay with the tide, and within 30 minutes, 56,000 3-kilogram salmon were dead. Needless to say, the salmon farm owners (and their insurance agents) were horrified at what seemed at the time like a freak event.
The salmon all swim in one direction inside the circular pens, creating a fairly strong vortex that sucks water in from the surrounding area. The Aurelia, being passive drifters, became entrained in the vortex. Too large to pass through the mesh, the jellyfish were pinned against the netting. As the jellyfish struggled against the current and the netting, their mucus, which is profuse and packed with stinging cells, was sucked into the cages. It appears that as the salmon inhaled the mucus, it blocked the oxygen-exchange surfaces of their gills, causing them to suffocate. The stinging cells exacerbated the problem by alarming the salmon, causing them to breathe faster, thereby serving to suffocate them faster.
Australia. Just one week after the New Zealand incident, a similar situation occurred in the Huon Estuary in southern Tasmania. This time it was 25,000 harvest-ready salmon. While these Aurelia were smaller and able to penetrate the mesh cages, the mechanism, speed, and outcome were like déjà vu.
Since these two events in 1998, both regions have had almost annually recurring Aurelia swarms vexing the salmon. Most recently, the New Zealand farm lost another 2,000 salmon in November 2010.
Besides the mass losses at the time of each incident, many fish die in the days that follow as a result of their injuries, and fish that survive these episodes often fail to grow efficiently (J. Handlinger, personal communication).
Norway. In November–December 1997, a mass occurrence of the very large and very stingy siphonophore Apolemia uvaria invaded coastal and offshore waters from western Sweden to northern Norway. This colonial species can grow to 30 meters (100 feet) long, looking somewhat like a long feather boa. For about six weeks, salmon farms were impacted by high rates of stock mortality and morbidity due to stinging lesions on the bodies and gills of the salmon. Previous mass fish-kill problems with no fewer than 5 other species of jellyfish, including comb jellies, which do not sting, were also reported (Bâmstedt et al. 1998).
Chile. So too, Chilean salmon farms have been plagued by jellyfish blooms and algal blooms, incurring huge economic losses (Carvajal 2002). In March 2002, one salmon farm in the Quemchi area of southern Chile lost about 120,000 fish, while another lost about 45,000, both due to jellyfish "attacks." Many salmon farmers believe that jellyfish are an omen of the arrival of El Niño.
Ireland. More recently, in November 2007, a massive swarm of Pelagia noctiluca, the so-called mauve stinger or pink meanie, wiped out a salmon farm in northern Ireland. The densely packed swarm occupied an estimated 26 square kilometers (10 square miles) and was 10 meters (35 feet) deep. All 100,000 fish at the farm, worth $2 million, were killed. The following week, a separate farm owned by the same company was wiped out by the same jellyfish swarm. All told, about 250,000 salmon were killed (Doyle et al. 2008).
Excerpted from Stung! by Lisa-ann Gershwin. Copyright © 2013 by Lisa-ann Gershwin. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Posted May 26, 2013
I found "STUNG!" to be fascinating, informative and, frankly, very sobering (the latter is no reflection on my review; it's the reality of our environment and ecosystems, as I concluded from Dr. Greshwin's book). Before reading this book, I did not fully appreciate the magnitude of the adverse impact that humankind has had, and, unfortunately, continues to have, on our precious oceans and its diverse marine life. I also did not appreciate that jellyfish, in their ever-growing numbers, results in a significant imbalance of the ecosystem; and, that one can view the presence of overabundant jellyfish blooms as an equivalent litmus test on the state of our oceans and, in fact, the future of life on our planet. Over the years, I have read books on this general topic by well-known and distinguished researchers, such as Stanford's Dr. Paul R. Ehrlich's "The Population Bomb," and Caltech's Professor David L. Goodstein's "Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil." Dr. Gershwin's book complements these works and provides a provocative and scholarly perspective on this important topic, and in fact, emerges as a very intuitive one, in terms of how we are destroying our wonderful planet. In particular, the focus is on our oceans in general, and, more specifically, on jellyfish and their blooms. Gershwin also considers the complex interrelationships of our terrestrial shortcomings (overconsumption, pollution, etc.) with those in our oceans (acidity, oxygen levels, overfishing, non-biodegradable plastics, etc.), which are manifested by changes in global temperature, atmospheric composition, etc. In essence, we are participants in an on-going laboratory experiment gone awry, owing to our reluctance to accept responsibility for our actions on the environment and ecosystems and to act accordingly. Over the course of our presence on Earth, humankind has been globally burying its collective head in the sands of our beaches instead of looking at our seas to realize the detrimental effects that we are imposing on all life forms, including ourselves. Sadly, our inactions have, over time, as Gershwin concludes, appear now to be irreversible and, presumably, past the tipping point, vis-a-vis the health and sustainability of our planet. Our only hope is, in the words of Gershwin, "to adapt." Dr. Gershwin's book is very readable, understandable and factual. It is peppered with myriad references (including many from scholarly, archival journals), along with a variety of interesting and informative quotes from experts on the field, sidebars (including simple kitchen experiments and refresher notes on relevant chemistry), tables, and a glossary. The level of discussion is ideally suited for the general public, students at all levels, the layperson as well as experts in the field. This comprehensive and extremely relevant treatment is a must-have for all to read, regardless of where one may reside on the spectrum of anthropic philosophy.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.