Penn State NASA

Giant Jellyfish


Giant Jellyfish

A new threat to fisheries around the world has developed over the last decade---a surge in the number of jellyfish in coastal waters. The most dramatic of these outbreaks is in Japanese waters, where the giant Nomura’s jellyfish has increased significantly, wreaking havoc with fisheries in the Sea of Japan.

Jellyfish populations are normally held in check by fish, mostly because these two groups compete for the same food sources. However, overfishing in many parts of the ocean has led to increasing jellyfish populations. Jellyfish may also be aided by warming ocean temperatures, which favors their development, and by the destruction of habitats of other natural predators such as turtles.

The massive Nomura’s jellyfish is a great threat to Chinese, Japanese and Korean fisheries. These creatures can grow to two meters diameter (the size of large refrigerators) with a weight of 200 kg.

Examples of Giant Jellyfish

Because of their size, they consume massive amounts of zooplankton, depleting this vital part of the food chain for other organisms. The key threat of the Nomura’s derives from the fact that this jellyfish reproduces extremely rapidly. A mature jellyfish has the ability to produce billions of eggs at a time, and they can do this when they are attacked. Once fertilized, these eggs develop into a resting polyp stage that also has the ability to multiply rapidly, effectively carpeting areas of the seafloor. When conditions are suitable, the polyp reproduces asexually, developing into the medusa stage, which grows into the mature jellyfish.

Video: Jellyfish Life Cycle (1:41)

Jellyfish Life Cycle
Click here for a transcript of the jellyfish lifecycle video.

The lifecycle of a jellyfish is similar in many ways to that of coral or a dinoflagellate. The mature jellyfish is called the Medusa, and that's what we recognize as a typical jellyfish that we encounter at the beach. The Medusa floats around in the surface of the ocean and often reproduces extremely readily, releasing millions of eggs on a daily basis, often triggered by light levels. Once fertilized, these eggs form the planula stage. And the planula continues to float in the ocean, until it finds a suitable substrate to colonize, often concrete or rock.

The polyp is the next stage and this is the stage that colonizes the hard rock, or the substrate, and this stage will continue to reproduce, this time asexually, forming new polyps. These polyps then continue to grow and often will bud to form colonies. Once conditions are right, often triggered by water temperature or nutrient levels, the polyp stage will then reproduce again asexually to form the new Medusa stage, which will then grow into the mature jellyfish. Because jellyfish are so productive, both in the Medusa stage and in the polyp stage, they are able to colonize massive areas with individuals. And this is the major threat of jellyfish, especially when overfishing in areas reduces their primary predator.

Japanese fishermen retrieving nets filled with giant jellyfish

Japanese fishermen retrieving nets filled with giant jellyfish.

Once ideal conditions develop, either by increasing nutrients or warming of the surface ocean, Nomura’s jellyfish populations literally explode and render fishing virtually impossible because nets become filled with jellyfish. These jellyfish can also continue to reduce the number of fish in the oceans by feeding on their eggs. Moreover, there is evidence that jellyfish can tolerate conditions, like hypoxia, that fish cannot.

The following video summarizes the impact of giant jellyfish on Japanese fisheries.

Video: Monster Jellyfish (2:35)

Monster Jellyfish
Click here for a transcript of the monster jellyfish video.




[PRESENTER] This year, we have more jellyfish than ever before. Tens of thousands are just caught in the net per day.




[PRESENTER] They carry nearly a billion eggs. Reproductive potential of this jellyfish is just enormous.


[PRESENTER] This is the baby jellyfish.


Blooms of other jellyfish species are being reported in many other parts of the ocean. In the Gulf of Mexico, for example, the last thirty years populations of two species of jellyfish, the sea nettle, and the moon jellyfish, have exploded especially in dead zones as these are one of the few organisms that can tolerate hypoxia. Jellyfish in the Gulf now swarm over hundreds and perhaps even thousands of square miles each summer.

A swarm of sea nettles (Chrysaora quinquecirrha) in the Gulf of Mexico
A swarm of sea nettles (Chrysaora quinquecirrha) in the Gulf of Mexico.
Credit: Lyn Gateley (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Here also, invasive species of jellyfish, including the Australian jellyfish, have been reported. Several other factors besides hypoxia have caused the increase in Gulf of Mexico jellyfish. As in the Sea of Japan, overfishing has reduced one of the main jellyfish competitors. In addition, drilling platforms have provided habitats in which jellyfish polyps can multiply. As in the Sea of Japan, jellyfish in the Gulf of Mexico are impacting the fishing industry.

Jellyfish swarms, too, have plagued other regions; they include northern Australia where the highly venomous box jellyfish has expanded its range, the Black Sea, and the Bering Sea off Alaska. Worldwide, jellyfish are one of the few organisms that can thrive in dead zones. With the spread of such dead zones in the oceans as a consequence of marine pollution and climate change, we could be entering the age of the jellyfish.