Saturday, July 19, 2014

More Jellyfish Off the Coast of Maine

A frame grab taken from a video by USM student Amy Santiago shows a large group, or smack, of moon jellies. Santiago took the video about a month ago while kayaking off the Wolfe’s Neck area in Freeport.

From the Portland Press Herald:

As jellyfish come in waves off Maine coast, questions follow - The early summer invasion appears to be heavier than normal this year, surprising some and distressing others.

Or, the June bloom could be a random explosion of a species that goes as fast as it comes.

Although they move without intent, drifting on currents, jellies – the term scientists tend to use for the gelatinous zooplankton these days, rather than jellyfish – are opportunists. They take advantage of holes in the system, competing with fish for the same tiny nutrients.

The waters off Maine have three types – moon jellies, comb jellies and lion’s mane jellies. Only the lion’s mane has a sting harmful to humans.

“It is frustrating to not be able to say anything other than speculative things about why,” she said.

That’s because no one in Maine has made a study of them. Trying to get a jelly expert on the phone is like playing a game of hot potato where you’re the potato, but all roads seem to lead to Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer and ecosystem modeler at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland. Even he demurs.

But at least one researcher, Nick Record of the Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in East Boothbay, has decided after two seasons of a noted increase in jellies that it is high time to start tracking the species in Maine. This summer he began building a library of the species spotted here and hopes to create predictive models that might tell us when to expect jelly blooms like the one that began this June.

“Then hopefully, a field program,” Record said. That’s all contingent on getting funding, because as he points out, although the public is more aware than ever about what is happening on the Maine coast – and ready to send an email or make a phone call to report it – there is less funding for such studies because of federal cutbacks in research.

“We have had jellyfish before,” he said. “But we haven’t had jellyfish where you look off the dock and all you see is jellyfish.”

“This year it was scary,” said Anne Murphy, whose family has owned a summer place in Brigham’s Cove since the late 1970s. She opted not to swim in the jelly-thickened water.

“I looked down in the water and I was like, ‘What is that?’ I have never seen so many,” Murphy said.

For weeks, Maine’s marine research centers have been flooded with questions about a seeming jellyfish invasion in local waters, primarily Casco Bay. They’ve ranged from the urgent – should I let my kids go in the water, or are they going to get stung? – to expressions of longer-term fears, namely, is this the result of global warming? Ocean acidification in the warming Gulf of Maine? Proof of a hypothesis that we’re headed for an ocean ecosystem clogged by jellies, creatures that cause many beachgoers to shudder in revulsion?

Researchers across the board say they just don’t know what the cause is. It could be climate change, including warmer waters. It could be a depletion of oxygen in coastal waters because of runoff from the land, or some response to overfishing.

Cathy Ramsdell, executive director of the Friends of Casco Bay, said her group has been getting questions about the creatures “everywhere we go this summer.”

“I am the person willing to talk about jellyfish, but it is an interesting state of affairs where I am what passes for an expert on jellyfish,” Pershing said. “I can’t think of anyone who studies them (in Maine) and we don’t really have good data on the distribution of jellyfish.”

“It’s hard talking to scientists because none of them want to commit and none of them want to be wrong,” said Dan Devereaux, marine warden for the town of Brunswick. He believes it’s all about elevated ocean temperatures....

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