The Connection Between the Jellyfish Population and Climate Change

jellyfishResearchers are claiming that environmental factors such as discharge of sewage and plastics, overfishing, and climate change are creating conditions for jellyfish to proliferate. The controversial opinion of these experts is that the jellyfish, which have been on Earth for over a half-billion years, have developed the tools to handle harsh environments due to our own mismanagement and pollution. They argue that more research funding and education is needed to study the issue further

Has the jellyfish population gotten out of control, and do the sea creatures pose a hazard to people who enter the ocean? Scientist Suresh Kumar, an expert on climate change strategy, agrees that the explosion of jellyfish numbers has become a point of contention. “Scientists believe climate change and the warming of the oceans are to blame for 2,000 jellyfish species expanding their ranges. The jellyfish swarms that scientists say used to be considered a rarity, are now seen as an annual occurrence. The U.S. National Science Foundation says the jellyfish are being blamed for the shutdown of seaside power and desalination plants in Japan, the Middle East and Africa. They are also reported to be terrorizing beachgoers worldwide.” 

There is a question as to whether the increases in jellyfish are a warning sign that the oceans are stressed and unhealthy. “Though some reports suggest jellyfish are taking over the world’s oceans, long-term records of these gelatinous animals fail to show a global increase in jellyfish blooms likely caused by pollution, warming, coastal development and other human influences.”

He examines the research, “While the analysis of a team of researchers going back to the 19th century doesn’t support a rising gelatinous menace, the team did find roughly 20-year cycles in the abundance of jellies. According to the Global Jellyfish Group, part of a recent rise-and-fall cycle may have prompted the perception of a global swell in jellyfish. They point specifically to the rising phase that began in 1993 and peaked in 2004. Even though the majority came from the Northern Hemisphere- particularly in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea- they include all available annual measurements, including datasets indicating increases in jellyfish. A number of research papers have suggested that not only are blooms increasing on a global scale, but humans are likely responsible, because humans alter the oceans in ways thatfavor jellyfish. However, others have maintained information on jellyfish populations just isn’t sufficient to draw such conclusions.”

Dr. Richard Pagett, an expert in environmental and social management, considers that “it is quite possible that some environmental factors– such as discharge of sewage (raising the level of nutrients) and plastics (turtles mistaking bags for jellyfish) overfishing (reducing potential predators) and climate change (changing sea temperatures and current flows)- could create conditions for jellyfish to thrive. Locally, they can be a problem in that they may impact recreational activities and other species on which they predate. Recent work in South Korea shows promise with a ‘robot-eating’ device that dispatches jellyfish quite dramatically.”

Should the jellyfish problem qualify the issue for additional research funding? Says Pagett, “Whether or not the local challenges posed by jellyfish swarms merits more research funding and education is debatable. There is a case that more funding on dealing with root causes of effluent discharge, plastic disposal, overfishing and climate change would be more effective in the long term.”

Pagett sees the challenge coming down to population and governance.  “Deal with these and, ultimately, the jellyfish issue takes care of itself.”

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