(photo credit: Media Line)
A new species of jellyfish found off Israel’s coast this summer poses no threat to bathers but should serve warning to the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea about the dangers posed by global warming and damage to the environment.
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Named Marivagia stellata and marked by a translucent hue of blue, patterned with red stars, dots, and streaks, two specimens were caught on the southern edge of Haifa Bay and off the coast of Beit Yannai beach this summer. Measuring 15 centimeters (six inches) in diameter, the fish does not sting humans.
Swimmers view them as a nuisance because of their toxic and painful sting, but scientists have much bigger problems with jellyfish. Hardy survivors, jellyfish thrive in places where overfishing, chemical pollution and rising sea temperatures have killed off other species. Indeed, they serve as a barometer of ocean health.
“It’s bad news,” Bella Galil, a senior scientist at Israel’s National
Institute of Oceanography in Haifa, told The Media Line. “We don’t know
how this particular species will develop, but the phenomenon causes the
displacement, and replacement of native local communities with invasive
species, and can destabilize the food chain.”
Surrounded by countries with more than 400 million people, the
Mediterranean is one of the most heavily used bodies of water in the
world – a fishing grounds, a transportation corridor, and the receptacle
for sewage and industrial waste. About a third of the world’s total
merchant shipping travels on Mediterranean waters and many species have
nearly disappeared because of pollution, including the Mediterranean
Marivagia stellata is just the latest in a series of invasive jellyfish
species that has been discovered in the eastern Mediterranean over the
years. Galil said the new species had probably originated in the Red Sea
or Pacific Ocean and had arrived after traveling through Egypt’s Suez
Canal, which connects the Red Sea with the Mediterranean.
“The Mediterranean is a very well-studied sea,” said Galil, who was
among the team of scientist to identify the new species. “Because the
jellyfish was found so close to shore, it is very unlikely that this
jellyfish would escape notice in a sea studied so extensively.”
In fact, Marivagia stellata probably found its way in to the
Mediterranean at least a few years ago. Galil said a specimen was
discovered off the Israeli coast in 2006, but was lost before it could
be positively identified. Another specimen was probably caught off the
coast of Lebanon in October, according to local media reports, which
Galil termed a “bad omen.”
“It means that it just arrived and already has established in a fairly
wide population and that it has the potential to increase and go
further,” she said.
The Mediterranean has been invaded by successive waves of outside
species, a process that began after the Suez Canal opened in 1869 and
linked the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and from there to the Indian
Ocean, according to Professor Menachem Goren, a marine biologist at Tel
Aviv University. Among the more infamous interlopers, is the jellyfish
Rhopilema nomadica, which is called “hutit” in Hebrew and began swarming
the southeast Mediterranean in the 1980s, inflicting painful injuries
on unwary swimmers.
“Recently this phenomenon has accelerated and the number of invasive
species has increased sharply,” said Goren, who attributed the increase
to rising water temperature resulting from global climate change.
Scientists say it is too soon to tell what impact the new species will
have. But jellyfish are blamed for clogging water intake pipes at
desalination plants and coastal power plants. Marivagia stellata and
the increased jellyfish population could disturb the underwater food
chain, scientists say. Jellyfish consume the plankton that other fish
eat and prey on fish larvae.
Goren was careful not to speculate on the threat posed by Marivagia
stellata , but noted that, “another jellyfish almost completely
destroyed local fisheries in the Black Sea ten years ago.”