Saturday,22 July, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)
Saturday,22 July, 2017
Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Jellyfish threaten the Mediterranean

Vacationers on Egypt’s North Coast came in for a potentially stinging surprise recently, with swarms of jellyfish being sighted in the Mediterranean Sea, reports Mahmoud Bakr

Jellyfish threaten the Mediterranean

Swarms of jellyfish have been taking up residence off Egypt’s North Coast in recent weeks, causing vacationers who decided to spend the Eid Al-Fitr holiday on the Mediterranean coast to report their heavy presence in the sea and near beaches. The news was soon all over social networks, accompanied by eyewitness accounts of people being stung by jellyfish and photographs of hundreds of the dead creatures washed ashore.

Amid the panic on how to correctly treat jellyfish stings, the Ministry of Environment quickly formed a team of marine biologists to study the phenomenon and reassure the public. The team united with the Environmental Affairs Authority branch in Alexandria and the Nature Preserves Authority to conduct the necessary research.


Jellyfish threaten the Mediterranean

The marine biologists released a statement saying that the jellyfish swimming in the waters off the North Coast belong to the group of rhopilema nomadica, or nomadic jellyfish, which have been found in the warm waters of the Mediterranean since the 1970s. This type of jellyfish was also found to be heavily present in the waters off Lebanon and Cyprus last winter. It was found off the coasts of Arish, Port Said and Damietta before it spread to the North Coast this summer.

Egypt is a member of the Network for Monitoring Jellyfish in the Mediterranean Sea supervised by the European Commission and based in France. Research is now being carried out on the jellyfish sighted off the North Coast by marine specialists.

The ministry has said that despite their presence in the Mediterranean Sea, jellyfish have not increased in numbers in the Red Sea or Gulf of Suez. It stated that it was usual for jellyfish to drift across the seas and oceans and that their migration from one place to another could be related to climate change, pollution or the overfishing of marine creatures, especially sea turtles.

“Since the arrival of the jellyfish off the Mediterranean coast, we have received 20 complaints and 53 inquiries from the public,” said Mohamed Eissawi, director of the Northern Nature Preserves Authority.


Jellyfish threaten the Mediterranean

“For 252km along the Mediterranean coast we have now recorded 8,625 sightings of jellyfish, including 4,927 off the North Coast, 1,092 off Alexandria, 1,108 off Balteem, and 1,480 off Port Said, Port Fouad and Gamasa. No sightings were recorded in the Dabaa area, Marsa Matrouh or Saloum,” he added.

“We are also actively tracking down people fishing for sea turtles, and over recent days we have returned 40 back to the Mediterranean in cooperation with the Institute of Marine Sciences,” Eissawi said.

The ministry statement cited the earlier phenomenon of groups of mnemiopsis leidyi, or “sea walnuts”, known as major predators, crossing from the Atlantic Ocean through the Straits of Gibraltar and swimming to the Black Sea and causing financial losses to the surrounding countries.

The ministry also released a report explaining what people should know about jellyfish and how to treat any stings resulting from them. A jellyfish is a marine creature belonging to the invertebrates group that has tentacles but no digestive system. One of the oldest creatures to exist on Earth, jellyfish are composed mainly of water and gelatin. They move by pulsating their bell to acquire propulsion.

The jelly-like, soft-bodied, generally umbrella-shaped aquatic creatures come in many kinds, some of which are venomous. They feed primarily on fish eggs and larvae and other components of the plankton community present in the marine ecosystem and abundant in the summer. Jellyfish are a main source of food for sea turtles, but only for very few kinds of fish.

The ministry said that jellyfish, naturally present in the Mediterranean, do not normally constitute a danger to people. However, it said that children in particular should be warned against touching or attempting to pick up jellyfish.

After rumours spread of the appearance of venomous blue jellyfish off the North Coast, the ministry ordered scientists to study the existing jellyfish types off the Coast. The scientists reported that only two types of jellyfish had been found: the rhopilema nomadica and the rhizostoma, both of which are non-venomous. Ministry officials said that there were more than 10 types of jellyfish recorded in the Mediterranean Sea.

Meanwhile, earlier this month Kuwait announced that swarms of jellyfish had attacked its Al-Zor South Electricity Station, almost blocking the cooling filters of the station. Ministry officials in Egypt commented that the spread of jellyfish close to the shores of a number of countries could be the result of rising sea temperatures across the globe.

The ministry refuted claims that some Egyptian beaches had been closed after venomous blue jellyfish were found on their shores. This kind of blue jellyfish, physalia physalis, known as the Portuguese Man-of-War, whose stings are sometimes fatal, has never been found off Egypt’s shores, the ministry stated.

Off Egypt’s coasts, the colours of jellyfish range from transparent white to light blue and blue. The blue colour is acquired from a type of algae that grows on the jellyfish. The colour changes according to the type of jellyfish, its age, the environment in which it lives and the amount of food available. Some types of jellyfish do not change colour at all.

The ministry added that the jellyfish were being studied in cooperation with neighbouring countries sharing the Mediterranean coast. Initial counts have revealed that the numbers recorded in Egypt from Port Said in the east to Marsa Matrouh in the west were similar to those recorded in neighbouring countries. A team has been assembled to collect jellyfish samples to study them more thoroughly.

The negative effects of the heavy presence of jellyfish extend beyond the stings they could inflict on people, which can take place even after they are dead and washed ashore. Swarms of jellyfish affect fishing because they attach themselves to fishing nets, eventually tearing them because of their weight, and because they feed on fish larvae.

When present in large numbers, jellyfish can damage industries close to the shore, as happened in Kuwait.

Jellyfish increase in numbers close to the shore during summer due to reasons including “the greater abundance of food, the fact that the mating season is during the spring and summer, climate change leading to the rise in the temperature of water which makes for a suitable environment for jellyfish, the increase in organic pollutants in seas and oceans, and the decrease in the number of marine creatures that feed on jellyfish such as sun fish and sea turtles,” said Mohamed Salem, general manager of Nature Preserves in the Central Area Authority.

Sea turtles may mistake plastic thrown into the water for jellyfish. When the sea turtles eat the plastic, their digestive tube becomes blocked and they die.

Minister of Environment Khaled Fahmi told Al-Ahram Weekly that “precautionary measures are being carried out to guarantee maximum safety for vacationers, in addition to efforts to raise awareness in resorts and hotels on how to safely get rid of jellyfish and treat any stings.”

“We have helped one resort set up a net barrier to prevent the jellyfish coming close to the shore. The experience has been successful and is now being scaled up, though it should be born in mind that the number of jellyfish is subsiding.”

According to doctors, people stung by a jellyfish may develop a rash that can then develop into inflammation and swelling. The burning can last for a day or so before it begins to subside and in extreme cases can be accompanied by muscular spasms. In some cases jellyfish burns leave permanent marks.

If stung by a jellyfish, it is recommended not to touch or put ice on the affected area, to pour salt water on the burn, to pour on vinegar or juice of lemon to neutralise the alkaline effect of the sting, and to use pain killers when necessary. If the pain continues, the patient should seek medical attention either with a physician or with medical posts affiliated with the Ministry of Health on nearby beaches.

The Ministry of Environment is currently reviewing studies describing precautionary measures to fend off jellyfish. Chemical means of controlling jellyfish numbers have been rejected due to their effects on other marine creatures. Sea turtles should be protected along with species of fish that feed on jellyfish, and heavy nets can be used to collect jellyfish from the sea.

The ministry has pointed out that jellyfish can make up a delicious seafood platter of the type often served in East Asian countries. It is served after severing the tentacles which are used to produce alkaline used in the manufacturing of detergents and cosmetics. In medicine, some serums can be extracted from jellyfish tentacles, and hypertension and skin moisturising medicines are also extracted from jellyfish.

In 2004, China imported 600 tons of jellyfish from Egypt, and this amount is expected to double with increasing demand from the Chinese and Thai markets.

Hala Mahmoud Ragaai of the Suez Canal Authority Research Centre refuted claims that “the heavy presence of jellyfish off Egypt’s coasts is the result of digging the New Suez Canal.”

She said the centre had “prepared an environmental and strategic study followed by an evaluation of the environmental effects of the New Suez Canal with the help of international experts and marine biologists. We are also constantly monitoring the movement of marine creatures in Egypt’s waters in cooperation with the Suez Canal University and the Institute of Marine Sciences.”

 

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