Special Report filed by AAF Correspondent: Scott Tingley
source: The Journal-Constitution


Animal Attack

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    Gulf of Mexico experiencing
attack of 'monster' jellyfish swarms
Hot weather, little rain main culprits
by Sunny David

Tuesday, August 29, 2000

Gulf Shores, Ala. --- The height of the hurricane season, usually threatening at this time of year, is providing just one more in a series of aggravations that have plagued the northern Gulf of Mexico beaches this summer.

First, there were rare shark sightings on Florida beaches in Pensacola, Destin and Seaside,. and Biloxi, Miss. There was also one major attack here that cost a swimmer his arm. Then, seaweed began piling up on Gulf beaches and rotting, leading to a "stinky weed" crisis.

Now there's a jellyfish invasion. Sponsors canceled Saturday's Fort-to-Fort Swim across Pensacola Bay from Fort Barrancas at the Naval Air Station to Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island, Fla., rather than risk swimmers being stung by the abundant jellyfish.

The jellyfish not only are clogging the beaches and making swimming uncomfortable, they are affecting the local economy because their numbers and size are making it difficult to earn a living harvesting local seafood.

Jim Heruska, a vice-president for A.G. Edwards Inc. who is accustomed to taking a morning swim in Perdido Bay by his home on Ono Island, says, "I have never seen so many jellyfish in my entire life as I am seeing this year."

"You couldn't wade out into the water because they were just piled in there in groups. They are monsters," says Heruska, who has lived on the Alabama Gulf Coast for 10 years.

Frank Patti, owner of Joe Patti Seafood in Pensacola, describes the effect the fish are having on the local shrimping industry.

"Jellyfish have gotten to be pretty big this year and are raising hell with the shrimpers' nets," he says. "They will go into the net and the sheer weight of them will rip the net apart."

Scientists think that the close encounters with sharks and the proliferation of seaweed and jellyfish are the result of the hot, dry summer this area is experiencing. As a result, it is causing Gulf waters to have a higher salinity count than normal.

Harriet Perry, a scientist at the Gulf Coast Research Lab in Ocean Springs, Miss., explains, "It's an unusual year." "We've never had this species (of jellyfish) in Mississippi and Alabama. They're spotted jellyfish that are not native to this area. In some cases, they're as big as a washtub."

Perry attributes an unusual water mass called the "loop current" with depositing the large jellyfish in the northern Gulf of Mexico. "The loop current," she says, "moves in through the Yucatan Straits, loops around and exits through the Florida Straits below the tip of Florida."

She says occasionally that current will push up into the mid-Gulf as it has this year and spin off a large water mass. "Whatever is in that water mass when it originated in the Caribbean is still with it as it moves into the northern Gulf," she said.

The seaweed, she says, was also in the water mass and moved in at the same time as the jellyfish.

Dr. Glenn Parsons, a biology professor at the University of Mississippi, has been studying shark activity along the Alabama and Mississippi Gulf Coast for the past three years.

In 1998 and 1999, his researchers caught around 500 sharks each year in their test nets from March through October. This year, with two months still remaining in the study, they have counted more than 2,000 sharks.

Parsons agrees with Perry that the salinity in the water is causing the increase. "We've had so little fresh water," he says. "Less rainfall means less runoff from the land bringing less nutrients into the Gulf. The sharks are always out there, but now they're following bait fish in closer and closer to the shore."

Parsons offers some consolation. "Your chances of a shark attack are really small," he says. "Of the 2,000 sharks we have caught, tagged and released this year, there have probably been only two that might have been large enough to have bitten somebody. A shark has to be six or seven feet long to be capable of biting a person," he says.

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