Appeared in Business in Vancouver – October 22, 2013
Absurd alarmism? Or scarifying prophecy? No, not nuclear Armageddon, overpopulation or even bee extinction. This all-purpose death-dealer is being benignly exhibited (to November 22) to admiring crowds at the Vancouver Aquarium. Jellyfish.
Those pretty translucent blobs that the word “jellyfish” conveys? Who’d have thought? Few of us know the half of it. Expert Lisa-ann Gershwin, director of the Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Services, knows so much that she gloomily believes we have passed “some mysterious tipping point that came and went without fanfare, with no red circle on the calendar.”
Her book, Sting! On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean (University of Chicago Press), was chillingly reviewed by Tim Flannery last month in The New York Review of Books, headed “They’re Taking Over!”
Some jellyfish – the Irukandjis, no bigger than a thumb – sting so painfully that victims beg for death. They threaten some whale species, penguins, coral reefs. Jellification of the Black Sea destroyed the anchovy and sturgeon fisheries. They have plugged nuclear plant water intakes in Japan and India, and once disabled the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan.
Some weigh half a ton. Some are 50 metres long. Some have overturned boats. They contribute to global warming. They deplete ocean oxygen. Cut up, the parts live on. In sparse times, they “de-grow,” then regenerate to full size. Rabbits would envy their reproduction speed. Those (criminal) driftnets sometimes catch their prime enemy, the sea turtle.
Closer to home, jellyfish can massively sting salmon to death. They increase the ocean acidification that has ravaged our Northwest shellfish, eating away their shells. Pink jellies are abundant in late summer in Deep Cove’s Indian Arm. To say the least, jellyfish are bad for business. (Coincidentally, last week the Vancouver Sun’s Larry Pynn detailed the total collapse of B.C.’s sardine fishery but mentioned no role for jellyfish.)
Cue some relief. Vancouver Aquarium senior biologist Takuji Oyama responds to this summation: “To be honest, to me it’s quite a bit of exaggeration. … What she says is not wrong, but making it scary.”
Japan has been dealing with the problem since the 1960s. (Aquarium director Dr. John Nightingale was travelling and unavailable for comment.)
Eating our way through the threat – jellyfish are food in China and Japan – seems unlikely. They’re almost tasteless. They’re sold in Chinese markets in Vancouver, typically already flavoured with spicy soy sauce and cucumber, and eaten in salads.
They “go pretty well with the beer,” Oyama smiles.
Vancouver Aquarium founder, retired director and international authority Dr. Murray Newman remembers eating jellies regularly while chairing an international committee advising on a new aquarium near Kaohsiung, Taiwan. On a scale of 10, “I’d give them maybe a three,” says Newman, at 89 as elegant and unflappable as he was during the days of hostility toward the world-class aquarium by a turf-jealous Vancouver parks board that was remarkably stupid even of its kind.
The New York Review is deservedly much respected, so it’s unsettling that its review of Gershwin’s ominous tome is illustrated by two colour photos – both shot in British Columbia – one of a moon jellyfish “in a remote channel near Victoria Island.” Check the B.C. gazetteer: There’s no “Victoria Island.” Presumably what’s meant is Vancouver Island. Ah, we’re a long way from Manhattan.
Newman wittily identifies the source of the jellyfish threat: “I think it’s the Republicans.”
He’s more immediately fearful about his U.S. equities “and I don’t know if the jellies affect them or not.”
And, drily: “What percentage of our anxieties come out of New York City, do you think?”
© Trevor Lautens, 2013