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Eat jellyfish, save the ocean

January 6, 2012

There was something cathartic in the delicious soy sauce and sesame oil infusion and the gelatinously firm texture of the second bite. During the first bite I was too apprehensive to fully appreciate the taste of my spineless nemesis.

As a commercial fisherman there is no creature that has caused me more pain and discomfort than the jellyfish. While seining for salmon in southeast Alaska I have been stung in the face dozens of times a day, nearly everyday of the past three summers. Seining is a relatively clean method of fishing with very little by-catch other than lots of red, stinging lion’s mane jellyfish. Albeit the smaller version of the lion’s mane, the biggest having a bell the size of a large pizza. In colder waters to the north they reach they can reach nearly 100 feet in length (including tentacles) making them one of the longest creatures on earth.

While I am always troubled if I see a non-targeted species come up in the net, I seem care little about the wanton killing of jellyfish. I’ll stomp on them and mush them with my boots so they slide through the gaps in the wooden false deck as my face is on fire and my heart is full of rage and hatred.

The large seine (net) is pulled back on to the boat using a hydraulic power block hung from the boom. The net comes down from above our heads as we pile it on the stern. It is often covered in thick blood-red blobs of tentacles that rain on my body. No matter how hard I try to keep my head down and my face away from the net, without fail, I will receive a blob on my lips, in my nose, on my neck, and in my mouth. On the bad days, we catch 10 pounds of jellyfish for every pound of salmon.

The ravenous jellyfish are in stiff competition sardines, anchovies and other smaller fish that eat plankton. Jellyfish have few natural predators, and those natural predators they do have are often threatened species, such as the loggerhead turtle in the Gulf of Mexico. Larger fish, such as dolphins, tuna and salmon, have less to eat when population of tail fish decrease from competition with jellyfish. They have been called “a sentinel of a degraded ecosystem.”

So when I recently found myself at a Chinese restaurant in El Cerrito’s Pacific East Mall and saw “savory jellyfish” on the menu, I couldn’t resist taking a bite of my old enemy. Even though my hatred runs deep, it has always seemed like a waste. Amongst fishers plagued by this gelatinous pestilence, there is always talk about creating a market for them. Fishers in the Gulf of Mexico have begun harvesting and exporting cannonball jellyfish. Though I’m afraid that the lion’s mane is not one of the eight species of jellies commonly eaten.

I say I couldn’t resist, but I was also hesitant. I normally have a very adventurous palate, but over the years I have grown to realize that my taste is rather occidental. I have many times ordered unstomachable seafood dishes at Asian restaurants. I can’t handle fishballs, uni (sea urchin) or fermented fish paste. Although I am often forewarned, the friendly proprietors of a few establishments have told me I may not like what I requested.

In Seaside, California the server told me that only Koreans like raw skate. I’m afraid she might have been right. At a Filipino eatery in Juneau, Alaska I was told not to order the squid dish, that I would much prefer the curried pork. I didn’t heed the advice and found that most of the squid contained half-digested anchovies in their stomachs. This personal history made me weary about ordering the jellyfish, especially at $6.95 for a side dish.

(I don’t intend for this to be a rant against seafood dishes from the lovely continent of Asia, there are dozens more I love. Plus, people around the world eat some strange dishes and rather disgusting things from the sea.)

The server told me that jellyfish was very good, but I didn’t quite think she was taking into consideration the cultural differences of our palates. The ‘savory’ slightly pickle Julienned jellyfish was the color of General Tso’s chicken. It didn’t have any particular smell other than what it was seasoned with. I was also worried that my chopstick skills might not up to the challenge of handling jellyfish.

It was delicious. The texture was surprisingly firm and I was able to bring the slices to my mouth easily using plastic chopsticks. I also realized I had unknowingly eaten jellyfish at a Korean restaurant as it was part of the banchan (small side dishes served with entrees). It was served cold and had a flavor reminiscent of seaweed salad.

Between the fact that I loathe them, they are scrumptious and they are a plague on many waters in the world, my conclusion was none other than all humanity should be devouring jellyfish.

Moving beyond the hyperbole of the first few paragraphs, my thoughts on jellyfish always go back to a passage of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael. The enlightened gorilla Ishmael uses the jellyfish as an example to his human disciple when clarifying the idea that Western secular thought is a myth, no matter how much we delude ourselves otherwise. The jellyfish in the primordial seas of a half billion years ago, Ishmael says, would have believed that the history of the cosmos was leading up to the creation of the jellyfish, who was at one time, the most complex creature on Earth.

“Think. Would have things come to be this way if the world had been made for jellyfish?” (Asked Ishmael.)

“No, they wouldn’t.” (Responded the disciple.)

“Obviously not. If the world had been made for jellyfish, things would be entirely different.”

“That’s right. But it wasn’t made for jellyfish, it was made for man.”

“And this partly explains how things came to be this way.”

“Right. It’s sort of a sneaky way of blaming everything on the gods. If they’d made the world for jellyfish, then none of this would have happened.”

Or maybe not. If there were a creature of in the ocean to benefit from the destruction of the ocean’s ecosystems it would certainly be jellyfish. Greater numbers of these sea locusts are being reported throughout the world. Between pollution, overfishing, rising ocean temperatures, increased acidity and a decrease in oxygen, no creature in the ocean stands benefits more from humanity’s misdeeds.

Jellyfish create a closed food cycle. Jellies eat plankton and then emit a “sugary goo.”  Bacteria eat the goo and emit carbon dioxide as waste—further compounding the larger problem. The single-celled protozoa eat the bacteria which are, in turn, eaten by only by jellyfish.

“The cycle traps the food web in a primitive state, one that some researchers compare to the ocean that existed more than 550 million years ago, before more complicated animals evolved,” wrote Kate Spinner in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Ishmael’s example might have been more exemplary than he thought; maybe the world was created for the jellyfish after all. Even though I don’t think the world was made for humans I don’t want to see my nemesis as the victor. As we saw from the laughable COP-17 summit on climate policy in Durban, South Africa, humanity is not planning on retrofitting the economy anytime soon.

So maybe one of the best things we could do to save the ocean would be to eat more jellyfish.

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