The Future “Jellification” Of Our Oceans?

By: Patrick Rodefeld, Associate

Autumn replaces the warm, long days of summer with gradually cooler, shorter ones. It is worth reflecting upon the summer period we leave behind, remembering the activities available to us during the summer months. Many Americans chose to spend portions of this June, July, and August at or near a beach in the United States. Americans have enjoyed going to the beach for generations along our country’s coasts. Yet despite this history and familiarity, it might be surprising to learn that the future of this summer pastime—as well as the oceans as we know them—might be in irreversible peril, with dire consequences for us all.[1]

The culprit is an unlikely one: jellyfish.[2] In her new book, Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean, biologist Lisa-Ann Gershwin argues that these ancient organisms constitute one of the gravest threats to oceans, seas, and societies that use and rely on these vast bodies of water.[3]

Gershwin begins Stung! with a discussion of the “[a]stonishing [e]cological [i]mpacts” of jellyfish in recent years.[4] While some of these “impacts” might be familiar to the average environmentalist—e.g. fisheries devastated upon introduction of invasive jellyfish species—other “impacts” are decidedly less so.[5] Included among this latter category is the case of Japan’s nuclear power plants, which “have been under attack by jellyfish since the 1960s, with up to 150 tons [of jellyfish] per day having to be removed from the cooling system of just one plant.”[6] Also notable is the saga of the USS Ronald Reagan, which became temporarily disabled after jellyfish clogged the ship’s nuclear power cooling system.[7] And lastly, a night in which forty million Filipinos lost their power after “fifty truckloads” of jellyfish interfered with a crucial coal power plant.[8]

The most compelling—and frightening—parts of Stung!, however, concern the destruction wrought by jellyfish on established fisheries.[9] Here, Gershwin examines this danger through a case study of the Mnemiopsis jellyfish, which “invaded” the Black Sea and quickly depleted its populations of sturgeon and anchovies.[10] Gershwin characterizes certain species like the Mnemiopsis as being aggressive feeders and opportunistic.[11] This is ecologically worrisome because jellyfish are able to reproduce quickly and effectively.[12] Once introduced to an ecosystem, their ability to survive and prosper under worsening ecological conditions means that they can often outlast their competitors, dominating the void left after most native fish have perished.[13]

Gershwin argues that human activity may be to blame for the proliferation of jellyfish, and that ocean conditions will likely deteriorate further in years to come.[14] She points to five causes that lead her to this conclusion.[15] First, due to over fishing of animals that compete with jellyfish for food, jellyfish have been able to monopolize new resources.[16] Second, collections of human litter, waste, and artificial surfaces floating around the ocean have increased exponentially.[17] These objects and structures provide the ideal location for “polyps,”—a loose analogue to eggs for jellyfish—to develop.[18] Third, jellyfish can thrive in the increasingly low-oxygen waters around the world, while many fish lack such ability.[19] Fourth, climate change is leading to warmer waters around the world, which will allow jellyfish to expand their geographic range.[20] Ironically, this will mean that jellyfish will eat more plankton, a species that removes large quantities of carbon dioxide from the air.[21] The decimation of plankton will, in turn, accelerate climate change.[22] Fifth, as carbon dioxide becomes absorbed into seawater, the seawater becomes more acidic.[23] On account of their lack of a shell or exoskeleton, jellyfish will thrive in such an environment while their natural predators—mainly turtles—will suffer.[24]

What has the United States done to prevent and mitigate the ecological damage caused by jellyfish? On November 2, 1966, Congress passed the Jellyfish Control Act, which authorized the Secretary of Commerce to “conduct studies, research and investigations to determine the abundance and distribution of jellyfish and other pests and their effects on fish, shellfish and water-based recreation.”[25] Yet despite the magnitude of the problem, Congress never appropriated more than $1 million annually to the statutory program.[26]

Stung! illustrates the potential dangers we face in a world of changing climate and ecological disturbance. If accurate, the book signals that it is high time for Congress to enact meaningful legislation to study, draft, and implement remedial measures.


[1] Tim Flannery, Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean by Lisa-ann Gershwin, N.Y. Rev. Books, Sep. 26, 2013, at 14-16.
[2] Jellyfish have, however, been the focus of a number of recent studies unrelated to their ecological effect upon oceans and seas. See Nathaniel Rich, Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?, N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2012), http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/02/magazine/can-a-jellyfish-unlock-the-secret-of-immortality.html?pagewanted=all.
[3] Flannery, supra note 1, at 14-16.
[4] Lisa-ann Gershwin, Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean 9-77 (Univ. of Chi. Press, 2013).
[5] Id.
[6] Flannery, supra note 1, at 14-16.
[7] Gershwin, supra note 4, at 11-12.
[8] Id. at 13-14.
[9] Id. at 43-48.
[10] Id.; Flannery, supra note 1, at 15-16.
[11] Gershwin, supra note 4, at 49-52.
[12] Id. at 52-54.
[13] Id.
[14] Flannery, supra note 1, at 18.
[15] Id.
[16] Id.
[17] Id.
[18] Id.
[19] Id.
[20] Id.
[21] Id.
[22] Id.
[23] Id.
[24] Id.
[25] Id.; 16 U.S.C. § 1202(1) (2006).
[26] 16 U.S.C. § 1203 (2006).

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