Jelly-fish's hightmare

Afraid of jellyfish? Hate touching it? How you’ll fell sorry for it because jellyfish faces a new enemy in Spain under a plan to create an armada of recreational boaters to spot the stinging blobs along the coast and summon help.

The pilot project, due to be approved Friday at a Cabinet meeting, has been devised to counter an exponential rise in jellyfish populations in many areas off Spain, the world's second most popular tourist destination.

The problem stems in part from overfishing that has sapped stocks of natural jellyfish predators like tuna and turtles, and of small fish that compete with jellyfish to feed on plankton, said Josep-Maria Gili, a marine biologist who is helping to coordinate the project.

Another factor appears to be global warming: jellyfish are drifting close to beaches more frequently as decreasing rainfall causes a drop in cooler, fresh-water runoff from rivers - a natural barrier for the creatures, he said.

"The fact that jellyfish make it to the coast is a sign the sea is sending us about how badly we treat it," said Gili, who works at the Barcelona-based Institute of Sea Sciences, affiliated with Spain's top research body, the Superior Council for Scientific Research.

"It is like a symptom of how we have changed the sea more than we thought," he said in a telephone interview.

The government program calls for recruiting volunteers - recreational boaters and anglers - to watch out for schools of jellyfish and call a toll-free number to authorities on land when they see a large group floating close to a beach.

Municipal authorities would then dispatch staff in boats to scoop up the jellyfish and dispose of them properly by letting them dry out. A freshly dead jellyfish can still sting, and so can a severed tentacle.

"You can't just throw them in a garbage can," Gili said.

Joaquin Such, director of a marina in the resort town of Altea in the Valencia region, said he has been contacted to try to round up a posse of jelly fish surveillance skippers and will hold his first meeting with them on Saturday.

Such said the plan is a good idea, but doubts he will get more than 15 takers. "In summer this is a real sacrifice. You go out boating but if you sea jellyfish you have to go through the whole procedure," Such said from Altea.

Gili said there are about 300 species of large jellyfish in the world's oceans and Spain is lucky in that its Mediterranean waters are home to about half a dozen kinds that are nowhere near as nasty as others.

"They can ruin your summer but they are not as dangerous as the ones in Florida, California or Australia," Gili said.

Still, jellyfish proliferations - scientists call them blooms - got really bad last year in parts of Spain's Catalonia, Valencia and Almeria regions, and some beaches had to be closed down for a few days.

Ricardo Aguilar, a biologist with the ecological group Oceana, said the plan is like trying to put a band-aid on a gushing wound.

"It is like using a mosquito net against malaria. The disease is still there," he told the newspaper El Pais.

Gili acknowledged the plan is no real solution, just a work-in-progress aimed at making beaches safer.

"The important thing is that anybody who comes to the beaches here in Spain should know that a serious plan is underway to keep this from being a problem," Gili said.

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