Stinging Tentacles Offer Hint of Oceans’ Decline

Published: August 3, 2008
NYTimes.com

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.”

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