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Stinging Indictment: Cal alum’s warning about the spread of jellyfish

October 22, 2013
by Shelby Pope

Jellyfish—the gently pulsing, brainless mainstay of darkened aquariums everywhere—are terrifying. Haven’t you heard? Last year they clogged the Diablo Canyon nuclear reactor, rendering it unusable. Some Australians wear pantyhose in the water to protect themselves from their fatal stings. And a recent New York Review of Books article, which noted that jellyfish have gouged the economies of at least three different countries, carried the ominous headline “They’re Taking Over!”

The book at the center of that article is Lisa-ann Gershwin’s “Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Ocean,” and according to Gershwin, jellyfish aren’t the scary ones—we are.

“We are the problem, “ says Gershwin, who received her PhD in integrative biology at UC Berkeley. “What they’re doing around the world right now is scary but it’s not because they’re scary, it’s because they’re simply responding to really favorable conditions. And we’re the ones that are giving them the environmental conditions to be so scary. “

Stung! describes how increasing numbers of jellyfish groups (called blooms) are thriving even as other species are not. A sample Gershwin passage: “If I offered evidence that jellyfish are displacing penguins in Antarctica—not someday, but now, today—what would you think? If I suggested that jellyfish could crash the world’s fisheries, out-compete the tuna and swordfish, and starve the whales to extinction, would you believe me?”

As the book makes clear, the proliferation of jellyfish isn’t just a random curiosity—it flows from the fact that they are a perfect barometer with which to assess our struggling planet.

Gershwin emphasizes that it’s not one particular factor that’s causing environmental degradation, but a host of multiple stressors that destroys ocean ecosystems while creating ideal conditions for jellyfish. “I think what really resonates with a lot of people reading the book is that we all know about over-fishing, pollution and climate change, but we don’t think about them together and we don’t think about them everyday.” she says. “Every single bit of ocean is dealing with all of these together, at the same time, every day.”

We talked with Gershwin about her background (“I had so many inspiring teachers at Berkeley. Oh my god, I loved David Wake. I sat in on his evolution class four consecutive years”). She also talked about environmental damage, San Francisco Bay, a jellyfish the color of a “fine burgundy wine”—and what led to her obsession with these prolific sea creatures.

What was your impetus to write the book?

LG: I’ve been working with the subject of jellyfish blooms for 20 years, so the subject was of great interest over a long period of time. But then the day before Christmas 2010 my counselor said to me “You need to write a book. You need to find something so that you’re keeping your hands and your mind busy, you need to find something you’re interested in and find something to do.” Then New Years Night 2011—so about a week later—I was at dinner with some friends and we were talking about jellyfish and jellyfish blooms, and they were absolutely gobsmacked. They said, “How come we’ve never heard of this? This needs to be out there.”  

Something kind of clicked in me and I went, “Yep, that’s the book right there.” I actually went home that night after the dinner and started writing and I wrote straight through—I didn’t go do stuff, I just stayed in bed writing for about 48 hrs around the clock. I didn’t sleep or anything. I just kept writing. And that was the basis of the book. I just wrote and wrote and wrote. And it was the most wondrous time in my life in terms of obsession with finding out more, and it was just this web of intrigue that I couldn’t pull myself away from.   

A couple years ago through a rather circuitous set of circumstances it turns out that I am autistic, that I suffer from Asperger’s. Well, actually I shouldn’t say I suffer, because I don’t suffer from Asperger’s. I actually suffer from people. The Asperger’s is actually quite delightful when I’m alone by myself in a room. I’m tickled to have found out and I think it explains a lot of things, but I think it also contributed to being able to write the book. It gave me the ability to focus on one thing, so intently, and just drop everything else for 5 and a half months. Most people would think that’s crazy. They’d say, “No, I want to go do stuff, I want to live my life” whereas I thought, “Ooh, I want to focus.” So it has its benefits.

Why are jellyfish such a good lens through which to look at these environmental issues?

LG: Their own biology makes them react quickly and bloom in big numbers so you can’t miss them when they’re blooming like that. Their own biology and ecology makes them a good barometer but there’s also the human social aspect, where jellyfish are completely off our radar. People just don’t think about jellyfish. Think about your own life: How often do you think about jellyfish? And yet something so simple, so meaningless, so irrelevant, so off our radar, is now jumping up and down and demanding our attention. So it’s sort of straight out of left field. Who would have thought that the lowly jellyfish could be such a problem?  

Talk about the multiple stressors you mention in Stung!

LG: Think about the San Francisco Bay for example. It’s one of the most severely affected by introduced species in the whole world. It’s also affected by warming waters, because the whole world is affected by climate change. It’s affected by pollution because of the sewage outfalls from San Francisco, Sausalito, Palo Alto, Berkeley, Oakland. And all of the runoff, even it’s treated it’s still going into the Bay. And pollution—if you drive along the highway in front of Berkeley and you look down, you can see Styrofoam cups and aluminum can and bottles.

The stressors on the bay—it’s not just climate change. And it’s not just pollution. And it’s not just urban runoff. It’s all of these things and so many more. And if you use that as a microcosm for what’s happening to bays and harbors and coastlines all around the world, you can see that these multiple stressors are having a huge effect, and often a synergistic effect where the combination is bigger than the parts alone.

You’ve discovered more than 150 types of jellyfish. Do you have a favorite?

LG: I’m actually up to 172, not including two more that I actually found yesterday. I think it’s like being a mom of a bunch of kids. But I do have favorites. The very first species I ever discovered was later declared to be the largest invertebrate that was discovered in the 20th century. And it is an awesome animal. It is 3 feet across the body, and it’s got these fleshy, hanging-down bits called oral arms that are about 20 five feet long. And it’s the color of a fine burgundy wine if you hold it up to the light—this beautiful, beautiful purpley, plummy color, just this gorgeous color. And it’s from Los Angeles!

Tell us about the jellyfish you discovered yesterday.

LG: This one critter, weirdest thing you can imagine. Picture in your head a garden trowel. Now instead of the handle, give it Batman ears. And then give it a pouch and give it a shark fin. It’s the freakiest thing you could imagine. And it’s a jellyfish. I’ve never dealt with anything so weird in my life.

What, if anything, can people do to reverse environmental degradation?

LG: That is the subject of my next book. I’m going to quote one of my favorite scientists, who I think put it so eloquently I don’t think I can ever put it better. Daniel Pauley is a fishery scientist based in British Columbia. He and I gave a joint seminar in Vancouver, and at the end of the seminar he summed it up so fantastically. He said, “Joining Greenpeace is good. Recycling is good. But these are not enough. We must raise hell.” And I think that is just perfect.

I don’t think there is really any one thing that any of us can do. Even collectively, even if we recycle, if everybody recycled, everybody on earth. It’s still not going to change enough. If everybody on earth turned off lights in rooms we’re not using—it’s still not going to make enough of a difference. If we all only eat sustainably caught fish, it’s not going to make enough of a difference.

We need to do the things to slow down the progress—the progress of the degradation. We need to slow that degradation down so that we buy time for someone, somewhere, some organization, somebody to come up with a solution or a range of solutions. We must buy time so that somebody can find a solution. But we also must raise hell.

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