What is the Fate of Jellyfish After Sandy?
As the summer approaches, the lasting ramifications of Superstorm Sandy are starting to come to light, however one effect that is still unknown is the impact on the jellyfish population at Barnegat Bay.
The Sea Nettle Jellyfish, common to many swimmers for their annoying stings, often appear in the mid to late summer and last to the early fall.
Could the violent storm surges, debris, and influx of contaminants do damage to the nettle population?
Barnegat Bay staff scientist Jim Vassildes warns it's still far too early to tell how the storm will impact the sea creatures lifespan.
Examining Jellyfish Life-Cycle
He notes the kind of jellyfish the public is used to, the floating gelatinous creatures that can potentially sting swimmers (aka medusa or floating stage), is only one part of the lifecycle and by the time the storm hit in late October, the jellyfish were already in their next stage.
Vassilides notes part of the life history stage of the Sea Nettle that drives the population for the next year is the polyp stage, small clusters of baby jellyfish that latch onto hard substances during the winter season.
"Whether it be natural substrates or some folks think it may be attaching to man made objects like docks or pilings." These tiny polyps are incredibly resilient, and Vassilides believes there is a good chance the storm didn't have much of an effect on them.
"They have the ability to pull and encase themselves in times of poor environmental conditions so they have may have just insisted and just rode out the storm."
One of the problems Vassilides explains is they really don't know where these polyps live specifically in Barnegat Bay, so they can't monitor the conditions.
The scant reference material they do have is in the Chesapeake Bay, which has a similar Sea Nettle population, and was affected after hurricanes blew in and affected the water conditions. However Vassilides isn't convinced the situation in Maryland is analogous to what is going on at the shore.
"While there is some precedent from the Chesapeake about how cold they can tolerate or how hot, we don't really don't know if that holds true here in Barnegat or if they are a little cold hardier here."
In fact, he believes the conditions immediately before and after the Superstorm could have a bigger impact on the nettle's condition.
"That's been true for other organisms that have rebounded before or after a hurricane in the Carolinas and Florida."
Jellyfish Population Peaks Late Summer
The first medusas will be seen in May according to Vassilides and based on history, the jellyfish population will peak late July or early August.
However he notes there isn't much predictability the Sea Nettles population.
"But if you remember two summers ago we had a pretty strong population and then last year when we had a fairly warm and folks thought we would have a fairly strong sea nettle population and that wasn't the case. That's why we're hesitant to say 'we have a pretty good handle the strength of the population is going to be this summer based over the winter.'"
The ultimate question becomes, is the jellyfish's presence good for the Bay? Vassilides explains they are still trying to understand how long the nettles have been in the Bay and at what levels,
"They weren't really intensively studied before. Anecdotally there seems like there has been an abundance of going back fifteen or twenty years when people started noticing."