Book Review: Stung! On Jellyfish Blooms and Future of the Ocean

By Lisa-ann Gershwin.
University of Chicago Press

Jellyfish are, rightly or wrongly, among the least-loved of ocean creatures. Beachgoers start with a presumptive antipathy born of the vague idea that all of them sting painfully, and some of them sting lethally. They tend to move en masse, making their presence seem all the more an affront. A smack of jellyfish (even the collective noun is hateful) is an unwelcome intrusion on our peaceable notion of the coast, yet a school of fish will never be. And their alien forms – boneless and radially symmetrical – suggest some kind of organised malevolence. We gravitate towards sea creatures that fill us with anthropomorphic affection, or for which we feel a protective urge. But marauding masses of eyeless, drifting wraiths are not, and have never been, our thing.

<img class="alignleft size-medium wp-image-10975" src="http://media.greatocean.com viagra generika online kaufen.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/stungbook-260×300.jpg” alt=”stungbook” width=”260″ height=”300″ srcset=”http://www.greatocean.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/stungbook-260×300.jpg 260w, http://www.greatocean.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/stungbook-600×692.jpg 600w, http://www.greatocean.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/stungbook-503×580.jpg 503w, http://www.greatocean.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/stungbook.jpg 690w” sizes=”(max-width: 260px) 100vw, 260px” />This collective averting of the eyes is likely to be to our detriment. Jellyfish have a thing or two to tell us about the state of our oceans, and none of it is good news.

Thankfully, as in all branches of science, there is an expert out there somewhere, observant and objective, who chooses to take on the creature we shun. And in this case, her name is Lisa-ann Gershwin. Ms Gershwin (quoted by Jennifer Ennion in her story on bluebottles in our forthcoming issue) is director of Australian Marine Stinger Advisory Services, has discovered 150 new species of jellyfish and won a Fulbright for her work. And to prove she’s as adept with the loved as the unloved, she’s also named a species of dolphin.

Gershwin’s book is an astute blend of hard science and folksy language: Consider “The process of acidification is normal…well, sort of.” Or her comparison between kelp forests and terrestrial ones, with “a million gribblies living in the understorey.” But when she is on-message about the dire need to reverse our systematic abuse of the oceans, she is bracingly direct:

“By mid-2010, the once productive Benguela fishing region had become a ‘ghost town’

“By mid-2010, the once productive Benguela fishing region had become a ‘ghost town’, or ‘dead zone’. Dead and dying jellyfish sink to the bottom and rot. Millions of phytoplankton that were once eaten by copepods and other zooplankton, now uneaten, also die and sink to the bottom to rot. These masses of decaying carcasses create a zero-oxygen zone of hydrogen sulphide where nothing can survive. Vast expanses of the seafloor are now a moonscape, an eerie graveyard almost completely devoid of living things. Jellyfish dominate the surface waters above this dead zone. The jellyfish have excluded most other living things by partitioning their vertical and horizontal space into a stingy-slimy killing field impacting over 30,000 square nautical miles.”

The range of perils associated with ever-increasing jellyfish blooms is extraordinary: everything from the pain and scarring of individual encounters to the capacity of huge blooms to shut down powerplants by clogging their cooling water intakes, and to destroy local fisheries by making harvest impossible. (These latter two forms of hazard are helpfully tabulated in appendices at the end of the book.). The chapter headings are suitably dramatic for this kind of material:”Jellyfish Completely Out of Control”, “Biopollution: The Twelfth Plague” and “Climate Change Changes Everything” are but a few examples.

Gershwin’s book makes for grim reading. Her sense of fun and her lively language are only just enough levity to get the reader through such a catalogue of human stuff-ups and their biological consequences. But for those of us concerned about the delicate balances that comprise healthy marine habitat, this goes very close to being compulsory reading.

 

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